Diving into Water Quality Efforts in LA (Transcript)

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Making Waves with WWETT podcast. In every episode, you'll get a glimpse into the latest news, insights, and the real people who are making waves in the wastewater industry. Plus, you'll hear their stories and some of the behind-the-scenes secrets about how WWET comes together. Thanks for listening, and enjoy this episode. 

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Hi, everyone. This is Liz Bothwell from WWETT with Brady Skaggs. He's water quality program director from the Pontchartrain Conservancy. Hi, Brady. Welcome, and thanks for being on the show today. 

[00:00:41] Brady Skaggs: Hi, good morning. Thank you for having me. 

[00:00:43] Liz: Could you tell me a little bit about your background and your journey to being the water quality program director there? 

[00:00:50] Brady: That is a fun one. As I mentioned, I'm not originally from here. Usually, folks from New Orleans, when you're asked the question, where did you go to school? They mean high school. I can never answer that question because I didn't attend high school here. I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. Went to do my undergrad at Georgia Tech, grew up swimming, had the opportunity, and really a fantastic time swimming for the university. 

After graduating, I realized, "Oh my gosh, there's nothing more I can do with swimming because swimming doesn't pay," and I decided to pursue graduate school. I came here to Tulane, where I studied underneath a professor that was both a former swimmer. I was also interested in the intersection of public health and engineering. 

I got to study water chemistry, specifically as it relates to disinfection technologies, but that's what got me here to New Orleans. My family, like I mentioned, is also from here. It's some overlapping things, but there was certainly a big pole to come here. All of this happened three days before Katrina, so I was supposed to start school just before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. 

[00:02:23] Liz: Oh, wow. What a start for you. 

[00:02:27] Brady: Yes, that was quite a couple of months. 

[00:02:33] Liz: Were you delayed in classes and work and everything else? I can only imagine what was happening during those early days. 

[00:02:42] Brady: I did. I moved everything over here. I was ready to go. The storm happened and I wound up needing a place to stay. I managed to live on my brother's couch for three months in Tallahassee before classes resumed in January of 2006. 

[00:03:06] Liz: Wow, crazy. Well, you saw quite a bit. Talk about a front-row seat to all the coastal issues happening down there, and I know that there is a coastal crisis there. Can you just give a little background on that and tell me more about that and the work you're doing to help combat that? 

[00:03:26] Brady: Well, our coastal sustainability program is certainly working to combat a lot of those issues, but in short, we have levied the Mississippi River to protect people and property across Southeast Louisiana. The leveeing of the Mississippi River also allows for maintenance of the waterway related to navigation, but that process has interrupted the natural deposition of sediment into the wetlands. 

We have historically and currently are certainly combating wetland loss and those issues and we're looking for ways to implement, hopefully, projects that will restore a lot of that wetland to Southeast Louisiana. 

[00:04:19] Liz: Got you. I know that you do a lot of work around pollution and you track some of that. Can you talk about what's happening in the waterways there? What the pollution is? Where it comes from? 

[00:04:32] Brady: Yes. In the water quality program, there's a variety of things that we're working on. One is a routine or a long-term monitoring program. That monitoring program has been going on for the last 20 years. It was started in 2001. It's a really robust data set where we conduct weekly sampling and it's been interesting to collect data, to be able to view that over the context of time. That program allows us to do other cool things, try to address sources of pollution. On the South Shore, namely Jefferson Parish and Orleans Parish, were concerned with stormwater contamination or contact with sanitary sewer contributions, or anything that can result in drainage going into Lake Pontchartrain that's been contaminated. On the North Shore, we have a lot of on-site wastewater systems that are exempt from EPA or Clean Water Act requirements. We provide the service of inspection, and also data collection, and the service of helping folks understand their systems so that they can get them performing optimally again. We do a variety of things to try to track pollution sources, but unfortunately, because we don't have a lot of sewerage on the North Shore or infrastructure on the North Shore to support a centralized wastewater treatment process, we do a lot of effort to try to mitigate a lot of on-site wastewater treatment sources. 

[00:06:22] Liz: Got you. Do you think it would be helpful for this area to be more tied into a water treatment facility that's more regulated? How do you feel about that? I know that people go back and forth on what should be regulated and what shouldn't. 

[00:06:42] Brady: That's a really interesting question. We certainly hear a lot about how we don't need more regulation, we don't want to be burdened by any more requirements. There are certainly some folks that are very against any additional burden, and I get that. It's certainly something that you can empathize with. 

However, what we tried to communicate, or some of the things we tried to do is to be advocates for centralized wastewater treatment. Anything where you have wastewater going to a centralized treatment source, and get folks out of the business of being their own wastewater operator. It's a long day some days at work. I don't want to go home and fiddle with a wastewater treatment process, and I think a lot of other people don't either. 

What we have to try to do is to bring the message of all these hidden costs and benefits associated with not being tied into a community wastewater treatment system. That's part of the thing. It's more getting folks to understand what their costs are or what they're not benefiting from, rather than pushing them towards regulation. 

[00:08:00] Liz: That makes sense. For the actual pollutants in the water, is it more residential sewage, or is it agricultural, is it both? 

[00:08:11] Brady: Well, we certainly have, at least on the North Shore, we did have quite an amount of dairy in years past. Historically, there had been a large CAFO contribution of dairy sources of fecal indicator bacteria to the watershed, but in the time, since Hurricane Katrina, we've seen a just a vast explosion of the population over there. People have been moving from the South Shore to the North Shore. Also, I guess, the industry of smaller dairy sources has been on the decline. There hasn't been as much in the way of contributions to the watershed as a result of those things. Yes, I think to answer your question, it's certainly an increase in population in something that's not under the purview of the Clean Water Act.

[00:09:13] Liz: Okay, got you. Other than that centralized water treatment facility, what else could you do to fix the pollution issues down there? 

[00:09:25] Brady: Well, there's an interesting question that's maybe in the question you just asked. Certainly, we've been hearing quite a bit about our carbon footprint and the energy that's required to pump water for both production and for treatments. Certainly, that conversation is going to be ongoing for some time. The advantage with having an on-site well in a wastewater treatment system is certainly you don't have to pump that water from  one site to another and then to a third to be treated for disposal. That's a distinct advantage. You don't have that carbon footprint with those pumping costs, but it is a little bit of a challenge because you're losing, I think, some benefit with having a certified operator to treat those waste streams. 

[00:10:22] Liz: Sure. What about PFAS? Are you seeing that 

[00:10:28] Brady: We haven't actually started any measuring activities with that, but that is a forever compound and it's been popping up all over the area. I think it's certainly something we're going to be looking toward for capturing data in the very near future. 

[00:10:45] Liz: Got you. I know it's everywhere, so you will have a challenge on your hand. What about microplastics? What are you seeing around those? 

[00:10:54] Brady: Microplastics is a program that we've started and we started capturing. We're trying to capture data with the assistance of community scientists. We did have interest of people wanting to help with capturing samples. That was a program that was started in 2019. The microplastics project has been interesting. We try to collect every sample or piece of data and have quality assurance procedures around that data capture, so that what we define as a number in both units and our measures is representative of the samples that we are collecting. 

One of the challenges has been that microplastics is not yet incorporated into the gold standard of water assessment by the way of a book called Standard Methods for the Examination of Water in Wastewater, but we're really interested in the different types of microplastics that are out in the environment. 

There's fibers, nurdles, films, and various contributions or sources to those different particles. What we have seen, at least from the data that we have collected to date, is that we have a lot of fibers in the water. I think that's interesting because the theory is that maybe those waters are having fibers as a result of washing clothes with having more synthetic fibers in our everyday clothing attire. 

Then with having a lot of decentralized wastewater treatment, maybe that's the source or contribution for those fibers appearing in the environment. Certainly in area and it's evolving science, and I think we're really interested to see what we can learn from that. 

[00:12:59] Liz: Oh, I bet. That's interesting about the clothes, and does not surprise me. I was going to ask you what can be done about it, but really, you're just starting to really study the data now, right? 

[00:13:09] Brady: Really, even beyond that, I think the community to really understand what's going on, if you're discussing a measure of fecal coliform, I think most people that are working in environmental sciences are of the understanding you have to capture that sample within six hours, and there's a positive control and a negative control that you need to run in your assessment. There is a set protocol for that procedure. 

The science is still evolving as far as microplastics and the ways that we can analyze those samples. Our program, we don't do a digestion with a strong acid or a peroxide to make sure there's no organics in it. Even before you work out the data and figure out your trends or your sources or your contributions, you really have to work out the methodology and the quality assurance behind any kind of measures that you're utilizing, and that still needs to be teased out. 

[00:14:13] Liz: Got you. Okay, that makes sense. I know your organization does a lot of advocacy work. What types of things are you focusing on now? 

[00:14:24] Brady: I guess, as an organization, what we would like to see is an environmentally sustainable in resilient region, and the ways that we go about doing that, first and foremost is to drive stewardship in the area, and that's done by first scientific data capture or research. Then we perform different activities associated with education and advocacy. We do try to exert a change that's driven based on some of the science that we do. 

With your leading question, for instance, we've looked at capturing data related to diversion projects because we've seen that diversion projects are very good land builders. We've been advocates and proponents for utilizing those projects on much larger scales to restore the coast. 

[00:15:24] Liz: How important is that education piece of it? 

[00:15:28] Brady: I would really like to say something wise and profound, but I can't. The education piece is so critical to everything and everything that we do. In a lot of cases, it seems like memory can be very shortsighted and you don't remember. In the case of just a couple of years ago, we had folks leaving the South Shore and going to the North Shore, but they didn't get an instruction manual or any piece of information that goes along with maintaining onsite wastewater treatment systems. 

There has been the challenge of they don't know what to do. Some folks think that as long as their toilet is flushing, and it will flush even if the system isn't working, everything's fine. A lot of what we do has to go into giving folks these different pieces of information. You need air that's being blown from an aerator into your tank. If you're driving vehicles over this aerator line, that aerator line can break. There's a variety of different failure points in these systems. Just imparting information is absolutely a requirement and just about everything, and making sure that our environment is protected, it's a critical component. 

[00:16:57] Liz: Absolutely. Especially, I'm sure, you see behavior change when you go into certain areas and talk about it, especially since they are the overseers of their own facility, give or take, their homes being their facility. It's crazy. 

[00:17:14] Brady: Yes, it really is. 

[00:17:21] Liz: We've all seen Jackson, Mississippi, and I know you're on the other end of that, but do you think Louisiana has learned anything from that? Is there anything on the infrastructure side that the state or your region is doing as a result of something like that happening? 

[00:17:40] Brady: I think there are, and I can't necessarily speak to these projects, but I think it's maybe a newer vision of the state or certainly with all the infrastructure funding there are projects proposed that are going to capture regionalization a little bit better or improving of infrastructure. All across Louisiana, we certainly have very decentralized water treatment for both the potable side of things and the wastewater side of things. That's certainly a risk point in the future. Louisiana it's both blessed and cursed in this way. Water is not something we usually have issues with quantity. Sometimes we have very strong issues with water quality, but the water quantity, we usually have [unintelligible 00:18:41] supply having all of those facilities up and down the Mississippi River that are trying to produce something and they are taking water to either for cooling water or for processed water and then disposing of it back into the Mississippi River. 

That's a very abundant resource that we don't get in other areas of the country, particularly out west. I guess to your point or to your question, regionalization is going to be important, and reinvesting in those infrastructure pieces are really going to be critical to protect water quality and water quantity into the future. 

[00:19:27] Liz: Yes, that makes sense. I would see that you guys would not have a problem with quantity down there. 

[00:19:33] Brady: We haven't, but like I said earlier, we haven't gotten rain in a month and it is exceptionally dry. 

[00:19:40] Liz: How true? 

[00:19:41] Brady: I usually, so I set up a rain barrel at my house just personally, and it was more to protect the back corner of my lot from having rain water go into an area that doesn't have a very good drain and I've used that  55-gallon barrel to water plants. It is bone dry and has been for some time, which it's never done in the two years that I've had it there. 

It's just we have not had rain in so long, and I've used all that water that I've stored that I'm now having to use potable water from the city of New Orleans to try to keep things from totally dying, which it's not something we usually have to worry about. We usually have adequate rainfall. 

[00:20:30] Liz: Oh, wow. Are you expected to get some soon? 

[00:20:33] Brady: I got one of those notifications on my watch not too long ago. There is no rain in the forecast for the next 10 days. 

[00:20:42] Liz: Oh, wow. Everyone worries about the quality of their drinking water. I'm in Connecticut, I'm always concerned about it. How much do the filters work? For the everyday person who really does not have your scientific background, what would you look or tell people to consider in drinking water whether it's bottled water, it's out of the tap? What are things to consider and hopefully look for in order to-- I know you can never a 100% guarantee but to drink the safest water possible. 

[00:21:17] Brady: Ooh, I might give you an opinion that's not very popular. 

[00:21:26] Liz: Okay. I'll take it. 

[00:21:28] Brady: I'm a very big proponent of tap water. Tap water, when you think of production of that tap water and the professional operators and utilities that usually are associated with these facilities, I'll speak a little bit on the side about some that are unfortunately not, but tap water is produced, because of the Safe Drinking Water Act, there is an annual report that you can go and look at the quality of your water from your public utility. It is usually of great quality and the cost per unit of that water is certainly much cheaper than when you compare it to bottled water, and it doesn't produce the same level of waste as bottled water. 

I'm very much a proponent of tap water. There are some folks that are on wells that are just not connected to a municipal system. Well water is good. It's great. You do have some issues in areas where you have large industrial users of groundwater. That can be problematic because they may-- like in Baton Rouge, for instance, there are several industrial users of groundwater that have such demand that there is some infiltration on the south side of the city of saltwater into the freshwater aquifer. That is certainly a concern. 

Then in some cases, I do know of some small production facilities or really they're more neighborhoods, but there are small operators that produce water for different neighborhoods that certainly have issues with providing sufficient or adequate water quality for those homes. It's not without risk, but I definitely think that tap water is the way to go, and it has some very clear benefits over the bottled water. It is interesting. 

There's certainly science around the leaching of different plasticizers into bottled water, that there can be some head risks there related to exposure to those plasticizers. Nothing is perfect and all waters will carry some level of-- There's nothing pure. There will be some level of contamination of water and you just have to understand the pros and cons of different sources and make the decision that's best for you but I do like tap water.

 [00:24:20] Liz: That does not surprise me. I feel like, as a scientist, that would be the answer I would expect. 

[00:24:29] Brady: That's a big thing for me, given that our tap water ultimately comes from the Mississippi River. We have uses all up and down two-thirds of the continental US where people are utilizing it and then putting it back in after having used it, whether it's sanitary in nature or industrial in nature. 

[00:24:49] Liz: Sure. 

[00:24:50] Brady: It's delicious. 

[00:24:52] Liz: Oh, good. Brady, I know you're aiming to have a more sustainable water quality and systems in Louisiana. What does that look like to you? What would be a perfect mix for you and how will you get there or at least strive to? 

[00:25:11] Brady: Like I mentioned, one of the things I think is regionalization of our water infrastructure, having a professional set of operators that are treating those water sources, whether they're sanitary wastewater or potable drinking water sources and are ultimately responsible because you do have teeth under the Clean Water Act if something happens at a plant and you have a sanitary sewer overflow or water is discharged from the plant that doesn't meet your permit. 

Getting folks out of the private, as it were, business of supplying their families for both potable water and sanitary wastewater are certainly some things that I would personally like to see. Now, there's a cost-benefit to all these things, and in the most rural areas, it doesn't make sense, necessarily, to tie those folks in. Where you have areas of rapid urban development like we do in Covington, Louisiana, or Mandeville, Louisiana, it certainly makes sense to have folks tied into some water or wastewater infrastructure. 

[00:26:24] Liz: Oh, yes, that does make sense. How long do you think it will take you to get there? 

[00:26:29] Brady: Ooh, I don't know. That's a very, very long time. 

[00:26:34] Liz: I'm sure. 

[00:26:35] Brady: With good reason. For homes that have already been built, and I know you mentioned Connecticut, are you tied into a wastewater treatment system, do you know? 

[00:26:48] Liz: We are. 

[00:26:50] Brady: Okay. You get a monthly bill for your sewer disposal fee or volume to sewer, some kind of fee like that? 

[00:26:59] Liz: Yes. 

[00:27:00] Brady: Do you know how many people in Connecticut may have an onsite wastewater treatment system, like a septic tank or an ATU? 

[00:27:07] Liz: Ooh, good question. I'm not sure of the percentage. I would imagine, at least in my town, it's pretty high because, obviously, the ones closer to town but we have a lot of hillier areas that will be tied into septic, not to city. I would have to look. That's a good question. 

[00:27:29] Brady: The first place to start, I think, with that vision and what it looks like as far as bringing that message to folks is the first thing you have to do is to assess some kind of economic mechanism to tie those folks in. It does come at some cost to connect homes that are already built to infrastructure, whether they have to run a sewer line out to that home, but you're digging up a street, you may have pumps if you're going against the direction of gravity. There's all kinds of fun things that go into that equation, and that's just the first place to start as far as it's going to come at a cost. 

[00:28:12] Liz: Oh yes, of course, that makes sense. 

[00:28:16] Brady: In Louisiana, all of our onsite wastewater treatment systems usually discharge to a ditch in the front of the house. Our soils are very compact and they're very organic, and they don't drain as well as some softer sands or other geologic formations. We discharge our wastewater to a ditch in the front yard, and there's a variety of concerns that come along with that. 

If the wastewater treatment system isn't performing, the sewer treatment is happening in the ditch. That ultimately makes its way to different [unintelligible 00:28:55] and tributaries going into Lake Pontchartrain. That's ultimately how we've gotten involved. The neighborhoods, we work with different partners. The neighborhoods that we've noticed a lot of these treatment strategies that utilize these ATU systems, they have high occurrences with West Nile virus. 

The mosquito that likes to propagate that disease happens to like highly polluted ditches. There's a hidden health cost that's also buried in there. Are folks adversely or are they possibly exposed to West Nile virus, therefore, is that a hidden health cost to them as a result of this practice? 

[00:29:52] Liz: You're right. I didn't even think of that. Interesting. There's so much to consider around water, Brady. My goodness. 

[00:30:00] Brady: There really is, and there are so many things that we touch and we utilize, but we don't even think. My son is 10 years old. One day, it didn't even dawn on me, but he was just thinking, "Well, it goes down the sink. When I turn off the water, it just goes down the sink." "Where does the rest of that go?" "I don't know, dad. I never really thought about that." 

[00:30:30] Liz: So true. Most people don't think of it until they turn it on and it's either discolored or it doesn't work. That's how we all think about it for the most part. 

[00:30:43] Brady: Yes. There are a great set of tools that water quality has. There are some fantastic measures. We can talk BOD and COD and some things that are fantastic measures for water quality, but they don't necessarily make a great impact with folks when you're just talking about what that means. You really have to get into something that is, I think, quite risky or scary to fathom like West Nile virus, for instance, or mosquitoes, nobody enjoys those. You really have to have a strong odor or color or some kind of visual disturbance to the water to really register an impact with folks. 

[00:31:30] Liz: Absolutely. I think we see that every day. This has been fascinating. I feel like this has been like a water quality 101 session. You really gave great insight into all of it. Is there anything else you want to share, Brady? 

[00:31:45] Brady: For your listeners that are interested in our organization and what we do, we have our website as scienceforourcoast.org. We recently developed an app and released our data to the public or released through that mechanism. You can download on your iOS or Android. Our application presents our data. Certainly, if you're visiting the New Orleans area, it's a great useful tool to have. 

[00:32:15] Liz: That is. Thank you. I will certainly be checking out your organization, and appreciate all the hard work you're doing to make a more sustainable waterway. 

[00:32:26] Brady: Yes, look forward, and hopefully, I get the chance to meet you in person, and hopefully, the weather is nice for you. 

[00:32:32] Liz: Oh, thank you. Yes. I hope you get some rain. Just enough, not too much. No. 

[00:32:37] Brady: Just enough. Right. 

[00:32:39] Liz: [laughs] Exactly. Oh, thanks, Brady. 

[00:32:41] Brady: Thank you for your time. I really do appreciate getting invited on. 

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