By Neil Farrell
Newly hired, U.S. EPA Regional Administrator, Mike Stoker, paid a visit Aug. 2 to the Morro Bay National Estuary Program, marking the first time a regional administrator from EPA has ever been here on official business.
Stoker, perhaps best known as a former Santa Barbara County Supervisor from 1986-94, was named to the post by the Trump Administration on May 18 and started his new job May 21.
He said he’s making it a point to visit all of the minor agencies within Region 9, which includes California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, the U.S. owned Pacific islands and territories, plus military bases in South Korea and Japan.
“I told my staff on day one, at an all-hands meeting,” Stoker said, “with over 400 employees that I’ll be the most traveled supervisor ever for Region 9.”
He had already visited 15 of the 148 Native American “tribal lands” within Region 9. Plus Region 9 has seven so-called EPA “Super Fund” toxic clean up sites, and military bases, which can have environmental issues of their own. “We go where we have to go.”
The region also has three National Estuaries — Morro Bay, San Francisco Estuary and Santa Monica Estuary — and Stoker said he wanted to visit Morro Bay within the first 90 days of his tenure.
MBNEP Director Lexie Bell and her staff took Stoker on the grand tour, hiking Black Hill and on a boat ride through the harbor. Stoker joked about being in fog by the Bay but bathed in sunshine on top of the hill.
Stoker complimented the MBNEP, which is a quasi-governmental, non-regulatory, public-private partnership arrangement, which is funded through federal grant monies and private donations.
According to the MBNEP’s website, since 2008, the Estuary Program has leveraged $5.9 million in EPA grant funding into $10.3 million of additional funding and support. Some of that support has come from the State, which seems fitting considering Morro Bay is the only official California State Estuary, an honor that was bestowed on the area many years ago. The non-profit Bay Foundation is the funding arm of the NEP.
There are 28 total National Estuaries in the U.S. stretching from New England, down the Eastern Seaboard and around Florida, the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico, up the California Coast and into Oregon and Washington’s Puget Sound.
Among those, Morro Bay at some 142 square miles is the second smallest behind Puerto Rico’s San Juan Bay’s 105 square miles.
Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership, which straddles the North Carolina-Virginia border, is the largest, encompassing some 23,022 square miles.
Stoker said the work the local NEP is doing was “impressive and incredible.” He noted their focus doesn’t start and end at the ocean but has been taken deep into the watersheds that feed the estuary — Chorro and Los Osos creeks.
Asked how their funding was holding up with the new administration in Washington, Director Bell said they were in a good position right now. The support grants from EPA have stayed level, she said, adding that their challenge is to leverage those monies with donations and grants from outside sources. The Bay Foundation is the funding arm and leads the fundraising efforts. “For every EPA dollar we get,” Bell said, “we must match that with a non-federal dollar. It drives us to bring extra people like the Ocean Protection Council in for grants.”
The MBNEP has expenses outside its staff, as one of the programs it runs in the Mutt Mitts, doggie pooh bags program, designed to try and get people to pick up after their pets and keep bacteria out of the bay waters.
And speaking of pooh, Stoker said his No. 1 priority right now is to enforce federal laws with regards to raw sewage being discharged by Mexico at the border, which is being washed down creeks and rivers into the ocean and pushed north by the current to the beaches of San Diego.
Other priorities include working with the Native American tribes on bringing them clean drinking water. Seventy-percent of the 148 total tribal lands in Region 9 don’t have safe water.
“The tribes with casinos,” he said, “have what they need. The 118 others are not so good.”
The same goes for the Pacific Islands and territories. “In Samoa and Guam there are a lot of pollution issues from the military bases in World War II,” Stoker said.
Mines are a troublesome issue too. Stoker said they need to deal with the Iron Mountain mine that has leaked tons of toxic materials into the Sacramento River.
“We now own that,” Stoker said. “We are making sure no acid runoff is making its way from the mine to the Sacramento River.” Some 6,500 gallons a minute of dirty water is now being collected and treated before being released back into the river system.
Established by Congress in 1987, The National Estuary Program’s various agencies are unique in their structure and functions but all share some traits such as being non-regulatory, and empowering communities “to protect, manage, and restore estuaries according to local values and needs,” according to the program’s website.