Central Coast Monitoring Program the Most Successful in the State

The Otter ProjectMONTEREY, CA – On July 4th, 2012, a milestone of 2000 surveys monitoring California’s Marine Protected Areas (MPA) was reached by volunteers with The Otter Project’s Central Coast MPA Watch program.

Starting in March 2011, MPA Watch was launched in San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Cruz to monitor for compliance with MPA regulations and help enforcement agencies and scientists understand the ways in which people are using the coastline inside MPAs and adjacent areas.

“Considering the program has been running for only 15 months, it is a remarkable achievement to have gathered so much data in such a short period of time,” said Brad Hunt, Program Manager of The Otter Project’s MPA Watch Program.

Following a pilot program in 2010, volunteers began surveying at strategic sites along the coast, observing a range of activities from regular beach goers and divers to surfers and commercial fishing boats close to shore.

“This is easily the most successful program of its kind in the state and plays a vital role in helping to promote ocean stewardship among Central Coast residents at a time when resources are scarce and funding is tight,” said Hunt.

The data collected by volunteers is compiled and made available to the public via The Otter Project’s website in the form of maps and reports indicating usage patterns at key locations.

It is anticipated that this data will help the Department of Fish and Game’s enforcement efforts in the region by identifying potential hotspots of human activity.

“We’re in talks right now with a number of different ocean groups about their own MPA Watch programs and sharing our expertise and lessons learned during the last year. Looking forward we would love to see it grow to include areas along the California coast north of Point Reyes,” said Hunt.

Residents looking to participate in the MPA Watch program can contact Mark Welden-Smith on 831-646-8837 x116 or visit www.otterproject.org for more details.

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June 15, 2012

California Coastal Commission finds that proposed termination of southern sea otter translocation program is consistent with California Coastal Act








Huntington Beach, CA—By unanimous vote, the California Coastal Commission yesterday confirmed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) proposal to terminate the failed southern sea otter translocation program is consistent with the coastal protection policies of California’s Coastal Act. The Commission’s decision represents an important milestone in the effort to finally repeal the “no-otter” zone–an outdated rule from 1987 prohibiting threatened southern sea otters from California waters south of Point Conception (Santa Barbara County).  Allowing otters to once again inhabit southern California waters is considered critical to the recovery of the species under the Endangered Species Act, but the decision to declare the translocation program a failure has been delayed by more than two decades.  Under a 2010 legal settlement reached by The Otter Project and the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) with FWS, the agency must make a final decision on the translocation program and the fate of the “no-otter” zone by December 2012.

“The Commission’s decision brings us one step closer to having southern sea otters fully protected throughout California and freely swimming in Southern California waters. This is a crucial outcome supporting recovery of one of California’s most charismatic marine species,” said Steve Shimek, Chief Executive and Founder of The Otter Project.

“Allowing southern sea otters return to southern California coastal waters will be a great benefit to the region’s economy and environment,” stated Brian Segee, Staff Attorney with EDC.  “It also serves the purposes of the California Coastal Act, which promotes the protection and restoration of the marine environment and threatened species such as the southern sea otter.”

The Commission’s decision to concur with FWS’ “consistency determination” was required by the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, which mandates that federal actions affecting a state’s coastal zone must be consistent with that state’s coastal protection policies.  In California, these policies are embodied in the California Coastal Act.  In reaching its decision, the Commission rejected arguments made by the California Sea Urchin Commission and other shellfish industry groups that it delay making its decision.  Several Commissioners noted that it has long been clear that the translocation program has failed and continuing the program will continue to hinder recovery of the population. Moving sea otters out of the current “no otter” zone resulted in harm and even mortality. As sea otters have begun to slowly move into southern California waters, it is important that they be fully protected.

Shellfish groups have, however, successfully lobbied to include a provision in the House National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 providing them with exemptions to “take” (kill, harm, or harass) southern sea otters that would otherwise be illegal under the federal Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.  The Otter Project and EDC are working to remove this provision, which would provide special treatment for all fishing groups in Southern California and has no place in a bill explicitly for national defense and support of our nation’s armed forces.


The Otter Project protects our watersheds and coastal oceans for the benefit of California sea otters and humans through science-based policy and advocacy. Founded in 1998, The Otter Project has worked to improve nearshore ocean health and resolve the barriers to sea otter recovery.  Learn more about The Otter Project at www.otterproject.org.

The Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties.  Since 1977, EDC has empowered community based organizations to advance environmental protection.  Program areas include protecting coast and ocean resources, open spaces and wildlife, and human and environmental health.  Learn more about EDC at www.EnvironmentalDefenseCenter.org.

Brad Hunt, The Otter Project, (831) 646-8837 x115
Brian Segee, Environmental Defense Center, (805) 963-1622 x109

Posted in California, conservation, Mini-controversies, No Otter Zone, Programs of The Otter Project | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Oceans Day – Celebrating our Underwater State Parks

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island (NOAA)

It’s easy to forget that meaningful change often happens in increments. Sometimes years go by until it becomes apparent that a fundamental change has occurred.

On the eve of World Oceans Day, The Otter Project would like to recognize one such meaningful change—California’s network of Marine Protected Areas (MPA).

It is often said that America’s system of national parks is among one of the best ideas this country has ever had. We submit that the formation of MPAs can be considered an extension of this great idea to include our ocean environment. As the bumper sticker says “My other state park is underwater.”

In January 2013, another piece of the statewide MPA network will fall into place with the North Coast region of MPAs coming online to protect a further 1,027 square miles of California coast.

From the Mexico border to the Oregon state line, California has set a nationwide precedent in creating a linked network of MPAs that are assisting in the rehabilitation of depleted fish stocks and aiding the restoration of its marine ecology.

It has been a hard fought road from the inception of the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999 through to the current network of MPAs, with opposition from special interest groups, funding issues and lack of political will being major obstacles.

From the beginning, The Otter Project has supported the development of these networks, taking an active role not only in their creation, but in helping to monitor their usage through our MPA Watch volunteer program in the Central Coast region.

With the ongoing challenges that ocean conversation groups face on a daily basis, World Oceans Day seems to be an appropriate time to reflect on the significance of this achievement.

Piece by piece, region by region, MPAs have been instituted through the combined effort of scientists, politicians, advocates and concerned ocean stewards.

As it did with Yosemite Valley way back in 1864, California is again demonstrating its commitment to being a guiding light for the protection of our natural heritage for future generations.

Posted in California, Marine Protected Areas, State Parks, World Oceans Day | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fisheries exemptions included in 2013 House National Defense Authorization Act

On May 17th, Rep. Gallegly made a floor statement for his amendment, formerly House Bill HR 4043, to the 2013 House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to establish “Military Readiness Areas” and provide unprecedented protections for all commercial fishery interests in Southern California.

Unfortunately, Rep. Gallegly’s amendment was accepted and added to the Bill.

Although the original language requiring an ecosystem management plan, assessment of carrying capacity for sea otters, and continuation of the translocation program and the “no-otter” management zone is  not in the amendment, commercial shellfish fisheries exemptions for “incidental take” of  sea otters is included.

“Incidental Take” means the accidental capture, or death, of a sea otter during the course of an otherwise lawful act (e.g. military training, commercial fishing).

We were originally opposed to the entire Bill, when introduced, but compromised on the military exemptions for “incidental take.” In other words, the military can accidentally kill an otter in the course of their training exercises and that would be acceptable within the realm of National Defense.

Unfortunately, shellfish fisheries think that they deserve the same exemption. The problem with fisheries having this exemption is that sea otters are natural competitors with shellfish fisheries. If a fisherman runs over a sea otter in their boat or “catches” an otter in a net or “by accident” then this will not be considered as a violation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) or the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

Now with the new amendment in the NDAA,  southern sea otters will not regain protection under ESA and MMPA in Southern California with respect to all fisheries in Southern California even when the US Fish and Wildlife Service make their final decision to end the translocation program and management zone in December 2012.

The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House last Friday, May 18, 2012, with Rep. Gallegly’s amendment included. The Senate will now pass their version of the National Defense Bill. The two bills will then go before another committee to reconcile the differences in language before it goes to the President.

If the NDAA passes through this committee with the fisheries exemptions included, this will set an unfortunate precedent for the protection of the threatened southern sea otter and other threatened or endangered species. If a single special interest group can get an exemption for a particular species, what is to stop other special interest groups from seeking legislative protections hidden in other Congressional Bills?

Posted in conservation, Fisheries Conflicts, legislation, Mini-controversies, No Otter Zone | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Otter Project took on Big-Ag, and guess what…We Won!

By Steve Shimek

After three years of delays, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board passed first-of-its-kind regulation of agricultural pollution.  The Otter Project led a broad coalition of conservation, environmental justice and water policy groups to the huge success.

Runoff from farmland near the Santa Maria River drains from ditches to the river.

Runoff from farmland near the Santa Maria River drains from ditches to the river.

Years of full-time effort; scores of meetings; trips to the Governor’s Office; visits with legislators; building of a broad-based coalition; three administrative appeals and one lawsuit brought us to the finish line.  As with all major efforts, hundreds of people were involved, but it was The Otter Project who led and organized.

Irrigated agriculture is exempt from compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. This blanket exemption has led to widespread agricultural pollution across America including “dead zones” offshore of major rivers on every coast.  Irrigated agriculture is not, however, exempt from California’s Porter-Cologne Water Quality Act. It was under this State legislation that The Otter Project worked.

In California, the Regional Water Quality Control Boards have the authority to implement water quality regulations.  In 2008 the Central Coast Water Board invited The Otter Project to participate in a stakeholder group to help draft new regulations for agricultural pollution. At that time we had no idea that the draft policy supported by The Otter Project would become what may be the strictest oversight of agricultural discharges in the country. Big-Ag’s lawyers and lobbyists flooded the Central Coast to try to beat back the proposed regulation.

On March 15th, nearly three years after beginning the process, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, on a unanimous 6-0 vote, passed the bulk of those strict regulations- calling for the elimination of toxic discharges within five years and the immediate reduction of nutrient pollution to surface and ground waters.

The pollution flowing from farm field to river to ocean is having an impact on our otters; to improve the health of sea otters we need to reduce agricultural pollution.

  • Farm fertilizers cause blooms of toxic algae like microcystis.  In just the past few years 21 sea otters have died of microcystis poisoning in Monterey Bay.
  • Twenty-two percent of the Central Coast’s inland waters are “highly toxic” and heavily polluted with agricultural pesticides.  The worst of the worst – the Salinas and Santa Maria rivers – drain into the heart of the otters’ range.
  • DDT is a persistent legacy chemical that was banned decades ago but is found in sea otter tissues in concentrations that could cause immune system suppression.   DDT adheres to sediment particles and becomes mobilized when poor soil management practices allow sediments to erode.

The heavily polluted water of the Central Coast is not just a problem for sea otters.  Millions of salmon and steelhead once populated these rivers. Today they are all but extinct.  Rural households and farmworker communities depend upon well water from the lower Salinas aquifer which is heavily polluted with nitrates.  Infants can die from drinking nitrate polluted water. High nitrates have also been linked to cancer.  The California State Water Resources Control Board estimates that the health of over a hundred thousand people in Monterey County is threatened by agricultural pollution.  Otters, fish, and people – it’s all connected.

The passage of the new regulations in mid-March will not be the last word.  We expect Big-Ag’s lawyers will file an administrative appeal to the new regulations.  They will likely request a “stay” to prevent the new regulations from going into effect.  We must remain vigilant to ensure the restoration of the watershed to a level that will support the health of people and otters alike.

The Otter Project will continue to be there every step of the way to ensure sea otters, people, and the environment are protected.  We believe agriculture has every right to use the water but does not have the right to return the water toxic to other users and the environment. We ALL have the right to a healthy watershed. Water is too precious to waste.


No one else takes on Big Oil, Big Ag, City, State, and Federal agencies in the same way that we do. We use the whole “tool-box” at our disposal—something a lot of small environmental groups will not do. These activities are not funded by grants. In fact, we do the bulk of our otter advocacy based upon grassroots support. It is gifts like yours today that keep The Otter Project afloat.

We need your help to hold the ground we’ve made for otters; To keep improving the water quality in our rivers to protect the otters’ health; To fight flawed legislation like HR 4043 which would keep the failed “No-Otter” Zone in place forever; To continue monitoring the Marine Protected Areas that are the habitat otters rely on; And to continue fighting the expansion of Big Oil in California and coordinating Oil Spill Response workshops in the case of a spill.

Otters have a lot of very rich and powerful foes with lawyers and lobbyists in the state capitol and in Washington DC. It is up to us, the members of The Otter Project, to stand up to those corporate bullies and defend these charismatic little guys. Together we can do it!

Thank you so much for your support today!

Click Here to Donate

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Otters remain in harm’s way of H.R. 4043 – Bill hearing before Full Natural Resource Committee

Last week, southern sea otter conservation dodged a bullet as House Bill H.R. 4043 was not included as an amendment to H.R. 4310 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 in the Armed Services Committee Hearing. This is very good news!  If H.R. 4043 appeared in the National Defense Bill, it would have been a significant challenge to ensure the fisheries protectionist language is removed once the Bill reaches the Senate.

As the saying goes, “we may have won the battle, but the war is not over yet.” This week H.R. 4043 will be marked up (edited) in the Full House Natural Resources Committee. The Democratic minority members are at the ready to have the fisheries language removed due to concerns over using the cover of “military readiness to further the goals of a special interest.”

If the ecosystem management plan language is cut out of the bill and no other fisheries protectionist language is added in, then we can look forward to the USFWS decision on the fate of the translocation program and the “no-otter” management zone in December of this year.

If the Bill remains unchanged or undesired amended language added in, then the Bill can either be proposed again as an amendment to the Defense Bill, where we may have another opportunity to cut out any fisheries protection language in committee, or it can be considered for a vote on the House floor on its own merits. It will most likely be an amendment to the Defense Bill as it will fail if it goes to the House as a stand-alone bill.

To ensure that sea otters have a fighting chance to reclaim their historical home range, we are following H.R.4043 very closely.

Stay tuned for more updates as we may need your help to oppose H.R. 4043.

Posted in conservation, Fisheries Conflicts, Mini-controversies, No Otter Zone, Outreach and Awareness | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

House Subcommittee Hearing on H.R. 4043 hits the Target

House Bill H.R. 4043 had its day before the House Natural Resource Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs on April 19th.  The witnesses before the committee to provide testimony were: Donald Schregardus, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Environment), Alexandra Pitts, Deputy Regional Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest Region, Bruce Steele Commercial Fisherman and Sea Urchin Diver, and Dr. David Jessup, California Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Veterinarian (Retired).

The questions posed by the Democratic minority members Mr. Sablan and Mrs. Bordallo revealed how irrelevant the ecosystem management section of the Bill is to military readiness and  how it impedes southern sea otter conservation and recovery efforts.

When questioned, the Navy supports range expansion if their concerns are addressed, and added that the ecosystem management section has no bearing on military readiness and has worked cooperatively with USFWS and USGS on sea otter conservation and monitoring efforts.

When USFWS was questioned about the necessary steps that they would need to take to satisfy section (g), ecosystem management, Ms. Pitts replied, “As you may know, we have developed a new recovery plan. We would have to spend resources and time to develop an additional plan to deal with the requirements of the Bill. This issue we would have in particular would be implementing the translocation and management provisions of the legislation as we have determined that they would jeopardize the continued existence of the species and we would have to work out how we would manage that.”

This is the exactly what the fisherman want! They want to waste more of your taxpayer dollars and more time to line their pockets with sushi profits by rebooting the program, keeping the “No-Otter” management zone in place and having otters removed from the zone again.

When Mr. Steele was asked where in his testimony he addressed military readiness and where military readiness is addressed in relation to ecosystem management, he replied “It wasn’t in my testimony. I understand the military is perfectly capable of taking care of itself and I’m afraid that I am the sole person that’s here to take care of shellfish resources.”

He was there to represent special interests that have nothing to do with the intent of the Bill but only to promote protections for the small sea urchin industry.

When Dr. Jessup was asked if he had any biological evidence to predict if an when sea otters would migrate to San Clemente and Camp Pendleton or other areas south, he stated “I don’t have any direct evidence. However, if you look at the rate at which they have expanded in the last 15 years, they have gone from the area around Point Conception [Santa Barbara] seasonally south…a distance of about 20 – 35 miles, that’s 15 years. It’s a long way to San Clemente Island and Camp Pendleton.”

The fishermen are making it seem as if otters are going to swimming in to southern California en mass and their industry will die out overnight. This is not the case as Dr. Jessup pointed out. It will possibly be decades before otters have a significant impact on shellfish fisheries in Southern California.

When the translocation program is hopefully ended and the zone is removed, I doubt sea otters will be throwing themselves a party or even notice that the “invisible line in the water” is now gone. They will continue to float on their backs, grooming themselves, and dive for their next meal in usual otter fashion.

Posted in conservation, Fisheries Conflicts, legislation, Mini-controversies, No Otter Zone, Outreach and Awareness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

H.R. 4043 – The bill that could destroy southern sea otter recovery efforts.

Give sea otters a voice in Washington - stop H.R.4043April 19th 2012 marks a critical day for southern sea otter recovery efforts and the future health of California’s marine ecosystem. It is a day where we reach a fork in the road and we need your help in continuing down the right path.

Stealth bill H.R.4043, or as we like to call it S.O.S (Sacrifice Otters for Shellfish), will be discussed by members of the House Natural Resources committee.

If successful, H.R. 4043 will create more bureaucratic red tape, pander to a small but vocal minority within the fishing community and essentially trade the future of California sea otter recovery for sushi topping.

In short, fishing industry lobbyists have been successful in adding their interests to a military readiness bill that protects their profit margins and allows for the failed “No-Otter” Zone policy to continue.

Over 22 million people live in Southern California. Do we really want the future health of 300 miles of California coastline to be exploited by a group of less than a few hundred people who are interested solely in short term profits?

It is crucial that we tell our elected representatives that the health of sea otters and the health of the California coastline is not for sale.

Sea otters must be allowed to continue their natural range expansion south of Point Conception without interference.

The good news is that with only 5 minutes of your time – you can lend your voice to this important cause. Simply visit freetheotters.org and complete the Popvox web form on the front page before 4/19/12 to ensure that sea otters have a voice in Washington.

Want to help sea otter recovery efforts even further? Visit http://www.otterproject.org/ to register your tax deductible donation.

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If it happened here….The legacy of the Exxon Valdez Disaster

MONTEREY, CA – On the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound and in the shadow of the Deep Water Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, we should pause and reflect on the impacts these events have had and continue to have on marine species and our oceans.

The Exxon Valdez Spill tested the abilities of local, national, and industrial organizations to prepare for, and respond to, a disaster of such magnitude.

“We have come a long way in spill response since 1989 but southern sea otters still remain in harm’s way from one unintentional oil tanker accident off the central California coast. A catastrophic oil spill occurring within the current sea otter range could decimate the entire population,” said Brad Hunt, Program Manager of The Otter Project.

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound spilling more than 11 million gallons of crude oil. The spill was the largest in U.S. history, before Deep Water Horizon, having a significant impact on marine life and the near shore ecosystem.

More than a thousand otters became coated with oil in the days following the spill, and 871 were found dead. Estimates of the total number of sea otters lost to acute mortality vary, but range as high as 40 percent (2,650) of the approximately 6,500 sea otters inhabiting the areas of the Sound. The Prince William Sound sea otter population has still not fully recovered 23 years later.

These statistics are alarming when we consider that in California during the last two years we have seen the highest levels of southern sea otter mortality that have ever been recorded. This is cause for concern given the recent population decline and stagnant growth rate. One large oil spill in the region could push the population to the edge of extinction.

Oil tanker traffic along the California coast was a founding issue for The Otter Project. Last year, The Otter Project hosted a Monterey County Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Workshop to increase understanding of the California non-wildlife and wildlife volunteer plans and how local organizations in the Monterey Bay Area fit into the overall picture of oil spill response before, during, and after an event.

The Otter Project also recently attended the Environmental Response to Oil Spills (EROS) training course hosted by California Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (DFG-OSPR) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA ORR).

“The key take away from our perspective is that prevention of an oil spill is preferred to response. As leaders in southern sea otter recovery, we remain engaged in oil spill response and vessel traffic monitoring to ensure an event like the Exxon Valdez does not occur on our coastline,” said Hunt.

For more information about our efforts, please contact Brad Hunt at brad@otterproject.org or to learn more, check out our website at  www.otterproject.org.

Posted in conservation, Events, Oil spill prevention & response, Oil Spills, Outreach and Awareness, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

World Water Day - March 22ndMarch 22nd gives us time to stop and reflect on one of the most important issues facing humanity in the 21st century—water and how we manage it.

World Water Day is an opportunity to discuss a topic that many of us take for granted. We are lucky enough to live in a country where access to clean water is a given. We turn on a faucet and potable water comes out.

Of course we hear stories in the news about water pollution issues and various initiatives to more effectively manage the resources we have, but for the most part, the challenges related to water consumption and pollution remain abstract and outside the concerns of our day-to-day lives.

Today we recognize the people and organizations that devote their time and effort to managing this precious resource and acknowledge their willingness to act when there is not the political or commercial motivation to do so.

The Otter Project has made water quality a priority over the last 12 years. Through our advocacy work and the support of various partner organizations, we have been a watch dog for the health of our local water systems and when necessary, taken legal action to protect them.

As recently as last week, and due in large part to our ongoing efforts, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board unanimously passed a new agricultural waiver that will begin to address the issues of surface water toxicity and nutrients, groundwater, storm water and riparian protection in California.

This is a huge step forward in ensuring the future health of our rivers and to hold those that pollute them accountable. We no longer live in an era when a continued and unlimited source of fresh water is guaranteed—protecting what we have and managing its usage is paramount.

As ever, there are new and arising challenges that dilute the progress water quality advocates have made. Just this week the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to cut all federal funding for beach water quality testing in 2013, placing 90 million people at risk from polluted water in the coming year.

Now is not the time for half-measures. Ongoing efforts to repair and protect our river and coastal water systems must remain a priority for the sake of our natural environment and the legacy that we will pass onto our children.

On World Water Day we are asking for your help with 2 things:

  1. E-mail the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board at info3@waterboards.ca.gov and tell them that you support their decision to regulate agricultural run-off of pesticides and fertilizers
  2. Write to EPA Director Lisa Jackson at jackson.lisap@epa.gov and your representatives and let them know that beach water quality testing is important to you and that funding should be restored to the Beach Act program in the interest of public health.

The Otter Project will continue to demand that government protect our precious resources from overzealous commercial interests and not hold them hostage to short sighted economic interests.

Water and how we use it will be one of the most important issues in the coming years. Helping support those that protect it and look out for the public’s best interest is crucial.

For more information about the Central Coast Agricultural Waiver, please contact Steve Shimek at 831-646-8837.

For more information about water quality and other issues join us at The Otter Project at http://www.otterproject.org.

Posted in General Information, Water Quality, Water supply | Tagged , | Leave a comment