Coming Together for Clean Water
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
April 15, 2010, Washington, DC
Background Information on Proposed Discussion Topics
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will host a forum entitled Coming Together for Clean Water on April 15, 2010, in Washington, DC. The forum will engage approximately 100 executive and local level clean-water thought leaders and seeks to inject additional perspectives and attendant momentum into EPA’s clean water agenda. The objectives for the forum include:
- Presenting EPA thinking on critical clean water challenges and needed directions
- Obtaining perspectives on critical unmet clean water needs and challenges
- Obtaining perspectives on EPA directions and identifying how EPA can maximize clean water protections under current authorities
The forum agenda reflects EPA’s intent to focus discussions along two thematic lines: Healthy Watersheds and Sustainable Communities – both critical Administration and EPA priorities. Within each of these themes, EPA has highlighted opportunities for innovative solutions and has identified related topics for focused discussion at the forum. Each of the thematic areas, along with the highlighted challenges and suggested discussion topics, is profiled below. EPA has prepared this material to generate thinking and discussion in advance of the forum. In particular, this text will act as the source material for an online dialogue conducted in advance of the forum. The dialogue seeks to engage a wider range of stakeholders and expertise than can attend a one-day, in-person meeting. EPA will use the perspectives and suggestions shared during the online dialogue to inform and refine forum discussions. The online discussion will also be shared in the final forum report.
Thematic Area 1: Healthy Watersheds – Restoring Degraded Waters and Preventing Impairment
Protecting and enhancing the health of watersheds is a primary function under the Clean Water Act. In this context, EPA seeks to increase the number of waterbodies being restored, increase the number of high quality waters being afforded effective protection from degradation, and enhance the overall climate resiliency of watersheds. Success will depend on integrating watershed and source water protection capabilities and ensuring the best available science is utilized to protect these resources.
Historically, many Clean Water Act programs have focused on traditional municipal and industrial sources of pollution. While there is still much to be done in this area, we now face the complex challenge of addressing more diverse sources of pollution. Agricultural and silvicultural (forestry) runoff, stormwater discharges from urban and suburban development, and hydrologic and habitat modification (such as channeling, creating dams or waterway erosion)  are among the leading sources of water quality impairments in the United States. Very few of the 43,000-plus impaired waterbodies in the United States will achieve water quality standards without effective controls on these pollution sources. These pollution sources are also the most significant threat to currently unimpaired waters, as new developments are built throughout the country’s less-developed areas.
Discussion Topic 1: Watershed Approach for the 21st Century
The watershed approach provides a coordinated, holistic framework to water resources management that encourages locally led public and private sector efforts to address the highest priority problems within hydrologically defined geographic areas. To be ultimately successful, the watershed approach must fully embrace clear, unambiguous goals, program integration and adaptive management; waterbody protection, restoration, and enhancement; planning and implementation; and regulatory and non-regulatory approaches.
Waterbody protection, restoration, and enhancement
EPA has long focused on identifying impaired waters and restoring their water quality. Recently, EPA has begun efforts (the Healthy Watersheds Initiative) on the protection and conservation of healthy, functioning watersheds, which provide the ecological support system essential for achieving water quality restoration. Identifying the locations of healthy watersheds and using that information to prioritize restoration and protection efforts can provide a strategic, cost-effective approach for State water resource management. The HWI would also build State capacity to undertake assessments that could support better targeting of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs).
Planning and implementation
Planning is critical for knowing where you are, where you are trying to go, and how you will get there. Plans are required as part of State NPS programs. Local and regional geographic-based programs (e.g., the National Estuary Programs) all have management plans. The Clean Water Act calls for a continuing planning process to ensure that the latest science is used and the current environmental goals are met.
For example, following the model recently created under the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, States would be strongly encouraged and motivated through accountability mechanisms to expand the set of authorities and tools that they rely upon to implement their programs effectively and expeditiously. These mechanisms would be directed by specific State-wide and/or watershed goals to reduce the number and extent of water quality impairments.
Regulatory and non-regulatory approaches
EPA is assessing how to use its regulatory authorities in innovative ways to tackle non-industrial sources of pollution. For example, EPA is considering revisions to its CAFO regulations to bring more point sources into the NPDES program. In developing a post-construction rule, EPA is exploring how best to control stormwater from developed areas. EPA is also evaluating how to strengthen the Municipal Separate Stormwater Sewers (MS4) programs. These efforts will not encompass all the discharges which impact watersheds, but they are important tools.
TMDLs can act as a complement to, and they often provide the essential ingredients and accountability framework for, the watershed approach. A TMDL, or total maximum daily load, developed for CWA Section 303(d) listed impaired waters, is the calculation of the maximum amount of pollutant a waterbody can receive and still meet water quality standards (which are based on the use of the waterbody as designated by the State). Included in the TMDL is the allocation of that pollutant load among the various sources of that pollutant. Hence, a TMDL can be used as the basis for an implementation or watershed plan designed to meet water quality standards and restore impaired waters. Within the TMDL process, we have the ability to use the concept of “reasonable assurance” to motivate states to put enforceable requirements or appropriate financing in place for reductions in nutrient loadings and can create a framework for cost/effective coordination between nonpoint sources or leverage point-source dischargers in the TMDL process to require offsets from nonpoint discharges.
In the mid- to long-term, EPA envisions effective protection and restoration of the nation’s water resources through locally driven, watershed-based planning and implementation activities embedded in comprehensive state and tribal watershed approaches across the United States. EPA seeks a well coordinated use of the broad array of CWA regulatory and non-regulatory authorities, with states having increased accountability. For example, following the model recently created under the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, states would be strongly encouraged and motivated through accountability mechanisms to expand the set of authorities and tools that they rely upon to implement their programs effectively and expeditiously. These mechanisms would be directed by specific statewide and/or watershed goals to reduce the number and extent of water quality impairments.
Topic 1: The Watershed Approach
Participants are asked to focus on how to best use watershed approaches to protect healthy and functioning watersheds, and restore, in particular, watersheds impaired by more diverse sources of pollution.
- Within existing statutory constraints, what actions can EPA take to achieve a watershed based, well coordinated use of current CWA regulatory and non-regulatory authorities to both identify and protect healthy watersheds and identify and restore impaired watersheds?
- Looking more mid- to long-term, what actions are needed to improve our ability to identify and protect healthy watersheds and identify and restore impaired watersheds?
- What are examples of effective practices and strategies that could be “scaled up” to State and national levels for greater effectiveness and wider implementation?
Topic 2: Exploring the elements of an effective nutrient strategy
Excess nutrients have been and are anticipated to remain of major concern and high priority for action as we address the challenges of impaired watersheds. The amount of nutrients entering the nation’s waters has dramatically escalated over the past 50 years, and nutrients now pose significant water quality and public health concerns across the United States. In terms of growing drinking water impacts, expanding impairment of inland waters, and compromised coastal estuaries, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution has the potential to become one of the costliest, most difficult environmental problems faced in the 21st century. Nutrient runoff from agriculture and developed areas is associated with the continued existence of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the increasing number of oxygen-starved areas around the nation’s coasts. These zones sustain little or no marine life – with significant loss of marine life and damage to coastal and marine ecosystems. Even in the absence of escalating nutrients, warmer air and water temperatures resulting from climate change will promote algal blooms and increase bacteria and fungi, reduce dissolved oxygen levels, and increase concentrations of pollutants such as phosphorus. The sources of nutrient pollution are varied as shown in the charts below.
Taking stock of the effort to date, EPA believes that there has been a substantial amount of work completed and states have, over time, increasingly invested in the steps necessary to reduce nutrient pollution. More remains to be done, however, to make the progress necessary to reduce current nutrient loadings to waters and prepare for the substantial predicted increases in nutrient loadings associated with both significant population growth over the next 40 years, as well as the multiplying effects that warming waters due to climate change will have on nutrients.
In response to this challenge, EPA, with its state partners, has been engaged on several fronts and is actively pursuing the development of a comprehensive, national nutrient strategy. For example, since 1998, EPA has strongly advocated for the adoption of numeric nutrient water quality criteria into state standards to better manage excess nutrient enrichment in surface waters. EPA has invested substantial resources to strengthen state capacity and identify opportunities to help states make progress in the adoption of numeric nutrient water quality standards. Recently, through the State-Federal Nutrient Innovations Task Group, EPA has coordinated with the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators (ASIWPCA) and the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) to address nutrient impacts nationally. The Task Group’s August 2009 report to EPA Administrator Jackson stresses that current efforts are undermined by the lack of a common framework of responsibility and accountability for all point and nonpoint sources within and across watersheds, and identifies a range of possible existing and new tools and authorities for EPA consideration.
In light of the need for point and nonpoint source nutrient reductions, to date, 15,000 nutrient-related impairment listings in 49 States have been developed, even as federal authority over state development of effective, enforceable, and transparent nonpoint source accountability is challenging. Through the CWA Sections 303 and 319 grant programs, EPA requires development of watershed plans directed at nonpoint source control and supports a wide variety of other activities including technical assistance, financial assistance, education, training, technology transfer, and demonstration projects. EPA also chairs and manages the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force, a partnership of 15 state and federal agencies that work together to reduce, mitigate, and control hypoxia in the northern Gulf of Mexico and improve water quality in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basins. The Gulf Hypoxia Task Force relies on voluntary programs from states and landowners to achieve nutrient reductions throughout the Mississippi River Basin. Further, Section 6217 of CZARA, the Coastal
Nonpoint Pollution Control Program, is jointly implemented by EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Section 6217 requires states to develop coastal nonpoint pollution control programs, approvable by EPA and NOAA, that are “in conformity” with the EPA-published management measures guidelines. CZARA also requires state coastal nonpoint pollution control programs to include “enforceable policies and mechanisms that are adequate to ensure” the implementation of the management measures.
There are also a variety of both regulatory and non-regulatory approaches to addressing nonpoint source pollution from excess nutrients being explored and practiced across the country and internationally. For example, US Department of Agriculture recently announced a new initiative to improve water quality and overall health of the Mississippi River Basin with a $320 million investment over four years targeted at high-priority watersheds based on nutrient discharges in a number of states along the Mississippi and Ohio River basins (http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/PROGRAMS/pdf_files/mrbi_factsheet.pdf).
There are also many local and regional programs that have provided isolated progress. More widespread deployment of these practices – in a context where substantial and broader challenges remain – holds the potential to enable further water quality progress. In California, the Land Stewardship Institute’s Fish Friendly Farming Environmental Certification Program is an incentive-based program for creating and sustaining environmental quality and habitat on private land (http://www.fishfriendlyfarming.org/). The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency implements a voluntary nutrient trading program used by point and nonpoint sources to generate and trade nutrient reduction credits (http://www.epa.ohio.gov/dsw/WQ_trading/index.aspx). In Florida, the Impaired Waters Rule (IWR) brings many nonpoint source polluters under a regulatory framework based on the preparation of a watershed Best Management Action Plan. Additionally EPA has proposed water quality standards in the State of Florida that would set a series of numeric limits on the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen pollution that would be allowed in Florida’s lakes, rivers, streams, springs and canals. In Pennsylvania, the REAP (Resource Enhancement and Protection Act) program gives qualifying farmers a state tax credit equal to 50 to 75 percent of the cost of eligible conservation practices—up to $150,000 per farm. This tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar tax reduction that can be applied to business and individual state taxes, and differs from a tax deduction, which only reduces taxable income. Farmers could use the tax credit to reduce their own tax bill (carrying it over for up to 15 years) or sell it to another taxpayer for cash. The Wisconsin Assembly approved a bill (A.B. 3) on February 24, 2010, that would prohibit the application of fertilizer containing phosphorus to lawns, golf courses and other grassy turf areas that are mowed (http://www.legis.state.wi.us/2009/data/AB3hst.html). Successful efforts at the regional or local watershed level may be models for future EPA programs.
Topic 2: Exploring the elements of an effective nutrient strategy
Participants are asked to consider the critical elements of an effective nutrient strategy to protect healthy and functioning watersheds, and restore, in particular, watersheds impaired by nutrients.
- What new or underutilized practices, strategies, or programs (both regulatory and non-regulatory) hold the most promise for driving nutrient reduction progress?
- What contributions can other actors (e.g., corporate stewardship, NGOs, States, etc.) make to achieve reductions?
- Looking more mid- to long-term, what actions are needed to create an effective basis for driving and sustaining nutrient pollution?
Thematic Area 2: Sustainable Communities – Tackling Wet Weather Management Challenges
Along with other federal agency partners such as the Departments of Transportation (DOT) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), EPA has made improving the economic, environmental and social sustainability of communities a major priority. In this context, EPA seeks to enable the emergence of integrated, coordinated, sustainable community investments and actions (e.g., land use practices and patterns) that increase the prospects for and lowers the difficulty of meeting CWA goals. This would enable communities to deliver clean and safe water reliably, affordably and sustainably, and at the same time be climate resilient.
Currently, many of the nation’s urban waters are impaired by pathogens, excess nutrients, and contaminated sediments that result from sanitary sewer and combined sewer overflows and polluted stormwater runoff from impervious urban landscapes. During precipitation events (wet weather), increases in stormwater flows from residential, commercial and transportation development have led to water quality and habitat degradation in virtually all urban streams. With hydrologic changes stemming from climate change, precipitation events are becoming more extreme, creating more risk of stormwater or sewer overflows and overland runoff. Degraded water quality in these waterbodies puts those who recreate or consume fish in these areas (often despite advisories) at risk, and limits quality of downstream water sources.
Communities living nearby often view these urban waters as polluted beyond hope of restoration. However, where neighboring communities view their urban waterways as valuable and worth restoring, and when they have found opportunities to personally contribute to — and benefit from – environmental improvements, they have become active agents for sustained restoration efforts. Community benefits from urban water restoration can include educational opportunities, skills development, job training, and improvements to neighborhood economies and livability. By reframing restoration efforts, EPA has the opportunity to harness the stewardship efforts of the large populations of residents who are closest to these urban waters.
Discussion Topic: Development for the 21st Century
The nature and pattern of development (and re-development) holds the key to effectively addressing the quality of urban waterways. Undertaken with water quality goals in mind and an appropriate mix of incentives, development and re-development can reduce the volume and improve the quality of stormwater and wet weather sewer flows, take pressure off municipal storm and wastewater systems, reduce or eliminate the introduction of legacy contaminants to urban waterbodies, and bring people together with their waterways and waterfronts.
With this in mind, EPA is actively engaged in promoting local development and land use practices and patterns that support achievement of CWA goals. EPA is working to expand and institutionalize the use of up-front water infrastructure planning that considers a full range of infrastructure alternatives, including “green” and conservation alternatives, to ensure that the right investments are made at the right time – and at the least life-cycle cost. Recognizing that sustainable water infrastructure is part of a sustainable community, EPA is fostering collaboration between the water sector and other infrastructure-heavy sectors, such as transportation and housing, to ensure investments work together. EPA is working with States to identify ways their State Revolving Funds can promote a “fix it first” approach that encourages water infrastructure re-investment in existing transportation and housing corridors, and that discourages inefficient sprawl.
EPA is also working closely with state and local agencies to promote low impact development practices and green infrastructure programs that can reduce water quality degradation by replacing or supplementing conventional stormwater management practices with practices that infiltrate, evapo-transpire, or use rainfall on site. Better managed runoff events will also reduce combined sewer overflows. Cities like Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago are finding that techniques like green roofs, rain gardens, and green street techniques not only manage stormwater and CSOs effectively but also offer opportunities for community action and local benefits such as livability and employment. The Section 319 nonpoint source program (and recently the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) has provided many millions of dollars for the implementation of such practices, including work in disadvantaged communities. The NPDES permits program has been working with States and cities to upgrade municipal permits to increase the focus on these new techniques, and the Office of Water is developing new rules to significantly reduce stormwater flows from developed and redeveloped sites which will also reduce CSOs. EPA has also recently published related guidance for federal agencies under Section 438 of the Energy Independence and Security Act (http://www.epa.gov/owow/nps/lid/section438/). The Office of Water as a whole is also working to integrate climate change considerations throughout water programs, as documented in the National Water Program Strategy: Response to Climate Change.
Building on the above and other efforts in the Brownfields, Superfund, and Environmental Justice programs, EPA is now developing a new Urban Waters initiative focusing on engaging urban communities, particularly disadvantaged communities, in revitalizing their local water resources and the surrounding land. EPA is leveraging existing programs and forming a federal partnership to restore water quality by engaging individuals who may not necessarily consider themselves environmentalists in the restoration of America’s urban waters. EPA will partner with governmental and non-governmental organizations to provide modest resources and technical assistance to model clean-up programs, especially those linking environmental restoration to community priorities.
Participants in this group are asked to consider how EPA and others can promote practices and approaches to reduce the volume and improve the quality of stormwater flows, take the pressure off municipal storm and waste water systems, reduce or eliminate introduction of legacy contaminants to urban waterbodies, and build resilience to climate change impacts.
- In light of the principles of smart growth, including green infrastructure, what practices or approaches have you seen in urban settings that have been effective in supporting achievement of the CWA goals?
- What additional practices or approaches do you believe hold potential to support achievement of CWA goals?
- What actions can EPA and others take to promote these practices or approaches in support of achievement of CWA goals?
 In this context, hydrological modification does not include water transfers.