Urban Discharges to Areas of Special Biological Significance on Monterey Peninsula

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A watershed-related issue examined by the ENVS 560/L Watershed Systems class at CSUMB.



In the 1974, thirty-four California coastal regions were designated by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) as Areas of Special Biological Significance (ASBS). The goal of the ASBS was to preserve unique and sensitive marine ecosystems.[1]. Monterey County possesses two ASBS: Carmel Bay and Pacific Grove, within which are the Pacific Grove Marine Gardens Fish Refuge and the Hopkins Marine life Refuge.

Storm discharge is urban surface runoff. It can originate from golf courses, homes, businesses, industry and roads. Storm water usually collects in catch basins and drain inlets and is then funneled away to point sources where it is discharged, uncleaned/sanitized, into the ocean. Under the original California Ocean Plan the SWRCB prohibited the discharge of pollution into ASBS (storm discharge was not considered a source of pollution at the time). But in 1987, stormwater discharge permits became a requirement, and fines for non compliance became an actuality [2]. However, the towns of Monterey, Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach and Carmel to this day collectively discharge their stormwater into their respective ASBS. Currently, there are 348 discharges into the Carmel Bay ASBS, and 246 discharges into the Pacific Grove ASBS [1]. Officials from Monterey Peninsula cities have been reluctant to comply with the state mandate, contending that zero discharge is economically unreasonable and lacks scientific basis. Municipalities and agencies on the peninsula have all filed for exemption from discharge prohibition. The exemption permit requires no alteration to the natural water quality of the ASBS and places the burden on the cities to prove no waste is entering the ASBS. In March 2008, SWRCB weakened the prohibiton of discharges by 'grandfathering' in existing stormwater outfalls constructed prior to 2005. [3]


Carmel Bay ASBS consists of 6.2 miles of coastline stretching from Pescadero Point to Granite Point and contains Carmel Bay State Marine Reserve. It is also adjacent to Point Lobos. Carmel Bay ASBS's watershed includes the city of Carmel and extends into the Carmel Valley. Pacific Grove ASBS includes 3.2 miles of coastline surrounding the city of Pacific Grove and contains Pacific Grove Marine Gardens Fish Refuge and Hopkins Marine Life Refuge. Pacific Grove lies within the Pacific Grove/Marina watershed. Discharges from Monterey and Pebble Beach are also involved in the Pacific Grove ASBS. [4]

Resource/s at stake

  • Urban stormater runoff is the largest source of coastal pollution[5]. It collects pollutants in the form of: pathogens, heavy metals, nutrients, oil, grease, pesticides, sediments, toxic chemicals and trash from a variety of urban sources including lawns, golf courses, roads, vehicles, domestic animals and industry.
  • Carmel Bay ASBS is a highly productive marine ecosystem that includes rare species of deep water marine invertebrates and the threatened sea otter (Enhydra lutris)[6].
  • Pacific Grove ASBS is another rich marine ecosystem with tide pools and kelp forests, which are paramount for supporting native fish populations [7]. The Hopkins Marine reserve, located inside the Pacific Grove ASBS, is a no take area, and therefore important in helping to sustain fish diversity/size and scientific research[7].
  • The Central Coast Ambiant Monitoring Program has observed high levels of coliform in Carmel Bay ASBS, as well as chloride, dissolved solids and sulfate levels which exceed water quality standards[8]. High levels of silt and nutrient pollution threaten coral that reside in Carmel Bay. Thirty-four percent (34%) of sea otters tested in the region were infected with the parasite toxoplasmosis [6], associated with cat feces and with high levels of sea otter mortality. Shellfish from Pacific Grove ASBS contain elevated levels of heavy metals.
  • Economic resources are also at stake. Some municipalities contend they do not have the economic or scientific resources to meet monitoring requirements[9]. The City of Pacific Grove has implemented an urban runoff diversion project to collect dry weather flows in the sewer system. The feasibility of capturing wet weather flows, treating and recycling stormwater for irrigation is currently being investigated. It is likely to require substantial investment. In 2006, SWRCB appointed an ASBS task force and was given $35 million of Proposition 84 funds to assist local public agencies in complying with discharge prohibition into ASBS.


The cities of Pacific Grove and Carmel are the major stake holders directly effected by the ASBS designation. The City of Monterey and the Pebble Beach Corporation are also stakeholders--although arguably to a lesser degree. Monterey Marine Sanctuary, local fisheries, coastal tourism and organizations such as the Ocean Conservancy, Monterey Coastkeeper, Surf Rider Foundation and Friends of the Otter are other interested parities that all have a vested interest in the effects of storm discharge.

Laws, policies, & regulations

In 1974 SWRCB designated 34 coastal Areas of Special Biological Significance (ASBS) and prohibited pollution discharges to these areas. The 1987 Federal Clean Water Act Ammendment required every city to draft and implement Stormwater Management Plans and apply for discharge permits. However, in 2001 the California Ocean Plan provided coastal discharge limits and required elimination of non point source discharge into ASBS. But, in March 2008, SWRCB issued a draft for special protection of ASBS against stormwater and non point source discharges. In some cases ASBS and marine protected areas overlap, in which case the Marine Life Protection Act may be used to protect the health of Marine Protected Areas.


Growing coastal populations has led to a rapid rise in land development and water use in watersheds. With increased impervious surfaces creating larger volumes of stormwater containing higher pollutant loads we are effectively destroying our coastal habitat.

Best Management Practices (BMPs) can mitigate increases in pollutant loads. Some of these BMPs include

  1. Erosion control to mitigate sediment loads, particularly at construction sites.
  2. Limited and effective use of pesticide and fertilizer applications to lawns, gardens and golf courses- high nutrient loads cause eutrophication.
  3. Proper collection and control of waste hydrocarbons (oils and greases) from car garages; control of industry by products in the form of heavy metals and toxic chemical loads.
  4. Pet litter pick up and disposal to limit pathogen loads.
  5. Illegal dumping in stormwater drains in which public education plays a key role.


The more we study our coastal shores the more we find evidence of the harm stormwater discharge is creating. A long term study by the State Mussel Watch Program (1977-2003) reported that mussels within the Pacific Grove ASBS were observed to have higher levels of lead and zinc in their tissues [10]. Furthermore, a number of studies have recently begun to link California sea otter [6] mortalities with Toxoplasma gondi, a protozan diease spread in cat feces.[11]. More scientific data needs to be collected on the effects stormwater discharge can have on the coastal environment. In addition more studies are needed to identify BMPs that can lead to vast reductions in runoff pollutants.

Scientific Tools

Monitoring tools are used to measure impacts of runoff on the marine ecosystem. These tools include monitoring nutrients, metals and other pollutants as well as using molecular genetics to better understand the biological toxins we are introducing into the marine environment. As more and more data is collected, modeling tools can be used to estimate impacts of increasing coastal populations, increased imperviousness, mitigation techniques on stormwater runoff volume and pollutant loads.

Future research

  • Knowledge gaps include base lines for what constitutes 'natural water conditions' in the ASBS areas. Wthout baseline data it is difficult to determine anthropogenic effects on the system. Therefore, more monitoring data is required. Long term chemical and biological impacts of urban runoff on marine ecosystems systems are also needed, particularly in the intertidal zone where impacts are most likely.
  • To aid in reduction of urban runoff, A MS research thesis could model effectiveness of Low Impact Development BMPs (rainwater harvesting, vegetative swales, bioretention ponds, treatment wetlands,permeable pavements) to improve stormwater quality and quantity. With unlimited resources, this study would implement LID BMP retrofits in the watersheds and conduct continuous monitoring of discharges.
  • Additionally, created wetlands have been proven effective in mitigating many of the pollutants associated with stormwater runoff and the effectiveness and feasibility of a wetland area for both Pacific Grove and Carmel could be undertaken as an MS thesis.

Notes and References

  1. 1.0 1.1 ASBS report
  2. Clean Water Act
  3. Core Discharge Program
  4. Map of ASBS
  5. Wikipedia page on Stormwater runoff
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 What's Killing the Sea Otters?
  7. 7.0 7.1 Pacific Grove: Area of Special Biological Significance
  8. Need source
  9. Need source
  10. Status Report: Areas of Special Biological Significance 2006
  11. Sea Otters and Toxoplasma gondii
  1. Map of ASBS- http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/ocean/docs/asbs/asbs_areas/asbs_swqpa_publication03.pdf
  2. http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/ocean/docs/asbs/status_report_aug06.pdf
  3. http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/ocean/docs/asbs/draft_special_protections.pdf
  4. http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/ocean/asbs_map.shtml
  5. http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/ocean/docs/asbs/status_report_aug06.pdf
  6. http://www.otterproject.org/atf/cf/%7B1032ABCB-19F9-4CB6-8364-2F74F73B3013%7D/conrad%20transmission%20of%20toxo%20clues%20from%20sea%20otters%20IJP%2005.pdf
  7. Map of Pacific Grove, Carmel and Point Lobos ASBS: http://www.mpwmd.dst.ca.us/Mbay_IRWM/2005_Planning_Grant/Application/FAAST/Att3_PG_WorkPlan_4ofTotal4_MAP.pdf



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