EPA gives local estuaries C and D grades



“Fair to poor� — that’s how the federal Environmental Protection Agency described the condition of estuaries along the Central Coast in a report the agency released this week.

Over two years — 1999 and 2000 — the EPA tested water at six different places in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties where rivers and streams enter the ocean: two spots in Morro Bay, three in San Luis Bay, and one at the Santa Ynez River estuary.

The Santa Ynez River estuary received the lowest marks of the three locations and was rated “poor� because of high nitrogen, phosphorus, and chlorophyll counts. However, the estuary did get good marks for having few toxins and contaminants in its sediment. It also got high marks for the diversity of organisms that live in those lower layers.

That’s the one criterion that Morro Bay got low marks for. And since it only got average marks when it came to phosphorus, and chlorophyll counts, the EPA rated the bay as “fair.� That puts Morro Bay in good company: 69 percent of the estuaries tested along the western United States coastline got the same rating.

San Luis Bay was in the 28 percent minority that received a “good� score.

The purpose of the report was not to point blaming fingers at any specific water body, said Terry Fleming, an environmental scientist with the EPA. Instead, the goal was to look at the health of estuaries along the entire western United States coastline.

That outlook isn’t rosy: The study found that almost 60 percent of the West Coast’s estuaries were threatened, and almost 30 percent were in such poor health that their use by humans and aquatic life was impaired.

Still, Fleming said he wouldn’t assume anything about the water around an estuary based on this report alone.

“[There are] only three data points in San Luis Bay so you can’t assume anything about the bay as a whole,� he said.

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