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Topic 1: The Watershed Approach

2010 March 16

EPA has long focused on identifying impaired waters and restoring their water quality.  Recently, EPA has begun efforts on the protection and conservation of healthy, functioning watersheds, which provide the ecological support system essential for achieving water quality restoration. Our challenge is to weave a range of voluntary programs, regulations, and strategies into an effective method of protecting whole geographically based drainage areas.

•    If you have experience with protecting watersheds, what has worked and what hasn’t?

•    How can we protect and improve watersheds given the challenges of various sources of pollution?

•    What examples of effective practices and strategies can be “scaled up” to State and national levels for greater effectiveness and broader use?

For more detail about why and how conference participants will be approaching this topic, please see the Discussion Document at right.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

104 Responses
  1. March 31, 2010

    CORALations is an award winning, non-profit coral reef conservation organization founded in 1995, and based on the island of Culebra Puerto Rico. The Caribbean archipelago of Culebra lies almost equidistant the big island of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands. The island enjoys a productive and successful Academic, NGO and community partnerships, led by the local Fishermen’s Association that proposed and pushed for the designation of the first No Take Marine Protected Area in Puerto Rico’s waters. The collaborators produce and manage the first (and only to date) coral farm in US Caribbean waters with education and outreach geared at training local youth as guides and coral farmers. These accomplishments were achieved with little funding in difficult region demonstrating that success in the face of adversity is possible with dedicated partners.

    Illegal deforestation/ devegitation is a major problem for Culebra’s watersheds and indeed has been identified in local action strategies to address through US Executive Coral Reef Task Force to little result. Pro active conservation measures depend on planning and planning processes have largely been corrupted for the past decade of our observations both at local and federal government agency levels. This likely is not going to change. Today we have a blatantly anti-environmental governor at the helm yet again, and are struggling against the systematic dismantling of local environmental oversight through permitting law changes on which proper implementation and enforcement of the Clean Water Act depend.
    The municipal islands of Culebra and Vieques are considered within the coastal zone and locally present a tremendous opportunity to protect from ridges to reefs under single municipal governments respectively. Combine this with the stellar natural resources in the coastal waters and it spells conservation opportunity…now under enormous pressure as last gold coast green space.
    Technically, Culebra has been protected by a Law (PR Ley 66, 1975 as amended) which states as public policy the protection of the ecological integrity of the island. Steep sloping highly erodable volcanic lands were protected by a special low density zoning. Coastal waters and beaches have been Federally listed as Critical Habitat for over a decade, and coastal waters have recently been additionally listed for corals. Coastal sea grass beds have been listed as critical habitat with some further designated as Resource Cat 1 which USFWS considers irreparable if destroyed.

    Caribbean conservation management:
    Watershed planning and management is the conservation opportunity in our region. On Culebra, the construction of poorly planned and placed illegal dirt roads typically bisecting or plowed down the centers of dry creek and river beds results in the canalization of tons of mud into coastal wetlands and waters…even massive hillside clearing does not meet the damage such a road can do that would not come close to meeting the minimum area required to trigger EPA oversight for storm water construction permitting. In addition to steep slopes, erodable volcanic soils, and a corrupted planning and permitting process, extremely dry lands are held together with fragile xeric vegetation are often challenged by as much as 10 inches of rain in less than 24 hours. Rarely are plans made to accommodate this rainfall and stormwater.

    Current Reframing and Funding Issues in Puerto Rico:
    In the seventies, local management plans recognized the issues with development in violation of soil constraints and imposed conservative zoning to protect sensitive areas from ecological fragmentation and coastal waters from resulting runoff. Today in Puerto Rico in general, rampant urbanization and sweet heart zoning consultations blatantly ignore protective zoning and with many local community groups are documenting if not litigating. Unfortunately to obtain an injunction in court you have to demonstrate irreparable harm to the environment. This means harm has already been done to water body and clean water act aspirations were not met. We believe EPA can change play a very critical role in protecting watersheds at the NPDES general construction permitting level simply by imposing a permitting contingency on local permits. This would at least insure some planning prior to NPDES permitting. This would also provide additional oversight to a local permitting process that is typically abused by corruption at this most important step, the clearing of the land.

    Change in thinking…
    In Puerto Rico, all watershed restoration monies went to a single watershed project, geographically un-representative of any of the island’s typical rampant unplanned urbanization challenges. There was also a discussion of “monitoring” coastal corals for the impacts from sedimentation. First, most of all coral reef conservation money over the past decade has gone into monitoring. As predicted, monitoring corals has left us with an expensive record of where reefs used to be. Money must be placed into infrastructure, planning and enforcement. Planning limitations (corruption) need to be defined, recognized and delt with for proactive results to be recognized. Second, consensus has sedimentation causing impact to corals and this investigation is re-framing the question from “How can we cost effectively prevent contaminated runoff given these situations?”…to…”How much sedimentation can corals tolerate?” This is why I also hate TMDLs.
    This “re-framing”, if you will, of a consensus understanding is moving us backwards. Watershed money now myopically focused on one watershed in our region will (hopefully, at least ) benefit this one watershed. Give the crisis situation, future funding must go into propagating and empowering with educational products and discourse, local watershed stewards throughout the region.

    Problems with current watershed protections:
    EPA is inadvertently permitting illegal development. NPDES construction permits can actually “greenwash” unsustainable development projects that are moving in violation of, or with disregard to, local zoning and permitting policies, thus facilitating unplanned work…. Unplanned work destroys watersheds and fails to adequately control erosion in sensitive regions.

    Solution: Require local permit review in order to obtain federal storm water or construction discharge permits. (I heard same complaint from a State official that monitors erosion control compliance in the US.) This process would also provide additional oversight to a local permitting process that is typically abused by corruption at this critical first juncture of land clearing.

    Identify and protect dry creek and river beds.
    EPA always defers fill reports to Army Corps and Army Corps always defers our fill reports to EPA. Meanwhile this is what’s happening to coastal water from a “reforestation” cooperative agreement with USFWS and PR Land and Fruit SE on Culebra. You can see ramifications of fill to dry creek beds and in this case dirt roads were even constructed over shoreline boulder forests. This dramatic damage did not trigger local EPA or US Army Corps of Engineers oversight due to technicalities….
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyWwSQTr9vQ
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XraKlKmJkA
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmHGFLYHhxo

    Roads should always be considered infrastructure construction. Poorly planned and constructed dirt roads can cause a lot more damage by canalizing mud off the watersheds during storms, then sometimes deforesting acres of hillsides.

    These islands need to identify (map) their ghutts, (aka quebradas, or major intermittent runoff areas….the ghutts then need to be protected by pro active management incentives…. Once the ghutts are identified, reforest along the sides creating vegetative buffer….and look to slowing the runoff from the slopes with well planned and constructed ponds. In urban areas folks would be incented to help if they can be given fruit trees to plant and care for and folks will if they see them as beneficial to their quality of life. EPA could spearhead a movement to do this….this runoff is defined by Location Action Strategies as the major problem for coastal Caribbean waters and dying coral reefs. Vegitative buffers along the ghutts may help with phyto-remedication of other problem chemicals otherwise transported to sea.

    Thank you for this opportunity, Mary Ann Lucking, Director

  2. Pam permalink
    March 31, 2010

    I am concerned about the natural gas exploration in upstate New York and how drilling could impact NY drinking water.

  3. March 31, 2010

    One key strategy for healthier watersheds and sustainable communities is to improve the efficiency of water use. Greater efficiency can diminish the need for withdrawals, including transbasin diversions, and helps sustain riverine and estuarine habitat as well as water quality. Water quality is also improved when efficiency reduces base flows in our collection systems, reducing the frequency and duration of discharges that exceed design capacity.

    Saving water saves money, for both consumers and communities. One of EPA’s major challenges in meeting critical unmet needs is financial, and water use efficiency should be viewed as a cost containment strategy for all flow-related capital infrastructure, both upstream and downstream of end users. Over time, billions of dollars in savings can be realized — dollars that can be applied to helping more communities address their water quality problems.

    Water use efficiency can now encompass a wide range of measures, including more efficient appliances and equipment, more effective strategies for curtailing customer leakage, rainwater harvesting, and various measures for reducing losses and curtailing property damage from distribution system leaks and breaks. User-friendly tools like the EPA WaterSense voluntary labeling program should be expanded, and LID features promoted.

    And EPA has another important role to play. Although water use efficiency receives attention in arid states, the benefits of efficiency — particularly the financial benefits — are available in all 50 states. States should be encouraged to consider water efficiency options whenever CWSRF capital assistance for flow-related projects is requested. States employing water use efficiency as a cost containment strategy are better stewards of limited financial resources, and should be recognized and rewarded as such.

  4. March 31, 2010

    What has worked for us in the Upper Gila Watershed of Arizona, which is in the Southeastern part of Arizona, is that only if we include and involve our stakeholders can we implement projects and programs that protect and restore our environment.
    Our work has taught us that to engage critical stakeholders, nothing is more important than knowing their history and background, understanding their issues and priorities, and addressing their immediate and long-term concerns.  And this is not a top-down process for us. It means truly forming a partnership between our funders and our community, where we can all agree or disagree respectfully, without fearing reprisal, and together learn about the threats to the health of our watershed and work towards our common goals.
     On a day-to-day basis, it means partnering with stakeholders in the decision-making process, hiring within the community, and ensuring that the stakeholders get what they need out of the process. There are no short cuts.  We have to put in the time.  But we have found that making the investment makes the difference between failure and success.
    What hasn’t worked is being forced by regulations and laws what to do and how to do it. Most rural communities tend to move a little slower, resist new ideas until they are proven to work distrust new technologies, and to discount all information from outsiders. Sure the laws and regulations will work in the end. But it’s a lot less expensive and painful for us all to work together.
    To protect and improve our watersheds, we believe it’s best to address the challenges on a local level. If we partner together with our state and federal agencies, we can bring together the necessary science and funding with the local knowledge and skills will get the job done.

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