TMDLs: A Tool for Better Water Quality?
The arrival of each storm brings more than rain and snow to thirsty California. From the coastal redwoods to the streets of Los Angeles, water flowing from hillsides and paved surfaces carries with it a host of pollutants that befoul tributaries, streams and rivers. The toll on the environment is measured in closed beaches, reduced fish populations and, in some cases, a lower quality of available water for human use. The sources of pollution are sometimes easy to control with existing technology. But in other cases, the ubiquitous nature of contaminants has left regulators in a quandary over how to solve the problem.
The effort to improve water quality will hinge largely on a little-known pollution control strategy known as total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), which describe the amount of a particular pollutant that a water body can absorb on a daily basis while remaining safe for wildlife and people. Once experts determine the extent to which waters are polluted, efforts begin to limit the contribution of contaminants from the end of pipes and from nonpoint sources such as storm water and agricultural runoff.
How TMDLs are developed and enforced is of great interest to a wide variety of stakeholders, from Central Valley farmers faced with stricter pesticide controls to water districts reliant on quality surface supplies to environmentalists who want a more aggressive cleanup program. The debate continues over the extent of regulatory intervention, but it is undisputed that TMDLs are a force for change in the world of water quality.
“There’s a tendency for people not to pick up the implications right off the bat,” said Dave Bolland, regulatory affairs specialist for the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA). “But then they realize [TMDLs] could change things.”
Those changes ultimately translate into cost impacts, whether it is in the millions of dollars needed to support the state’s TMDL development apparatus or the higher costs of water treatment to meet new standards. Additional economic impacts could be felt if overburdened watersheds block the growth of new development.
TMDLs are part of a renewed emphasis on water quality that is particularly relevant in the arid West, which relies in part on surface water to meet its growing need. The situation is not unlike the one that exists with improved air quality. Regulations, over time, have drastically cut the amount of pollution spewed from smokestacks, but millions of motor vehicles continue to emit pollutants that give portions of California some of the worst air quality in the nation.
Likewise, in the arena of water quality, while fewer toxic chemicals are flowing from pipes to surface water, the remaining pollutants from parking lots, roads and abandoned mines undermine the best preventative efforts. Enter TMDLs and the concept that a threshold for water pollution be established and proportional responsibility for that pollution allocated.
TMDLs gained notoriety because of the revelations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that water quality standards are not being achieved for 40 percent of the waters assessed. “This amounts to over 20,000 individual river segments, lakes and estuaries,” according to EPA, which notes that “an overwhelming majority of the population – 218 million – live within 10 miles of the impaired waters.” Environmentalists discovered that EPA had failed to adhere to the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), which outlines the manner by which polluted waters are identified and TMDLs drafted and implemented.
The lawsuits began in the mid-1980s and currently number about 40 cases in 38 states. In California, environmentalists sued EPA for failing to establish TMDLs in all major watersheds. Because the state had submitted few TMDLs for approval, environmentalists argued that EPA was obligated to unilaterally establish TMDLs.
Stefan Lorenzato, TMDL Coordinator for the State Water Resources Control Board (State Board), acknowledged that while water quality monitoring has been underway for years, the state has not adequately followed through with TMDLs.
Regulated dischargers say the fact that TMDLs were left undone for so long does not give officials license to hastily throw together TMDLs for the sake of completion. Instead, they argue, the state and federal governments need to embark on a carefully crafted course that ensures sound science and the proper recognition of pollutants from other than point sources. Privately, some industry lobbyists believe the renewed attention to TMDLs reflects an effort by environmentalists to reduce growth. Environmentalists argue that they are merely pushing for enforcement of a 30-year-old law, and that to further ignore TMDLs jeopardizes the health of the nation’s waters.
“The growth issue is a ‘chicken little’ argument,” said Mike Lozeau, an attorney with the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund. “There’s plenty of things [dischargers] can do to allow development [but] it won’t be easy.”
Some suits have resulted in court-ordered TMDLs done in a fashion that critics say opens the door to inflexibility and runaway costs. Others allege the settlements give dischargers an undeserved break through phased implementation plans that avoid tough decisions. “The reason TMDLs have emerged as the force they are is that [they] are different from voluntary, consensus based exercises,” Tulane University law professor Oliver Houck wrote in his 1999 book The Clean Water Act TMDL Program: Law, Policy, and Implementation. “They require more.”
Most observers acknowledge that the onus of water quality protection has shifted to nonpoint sources as technologically based point source controls have reduced pollutant amounts dramatically. In California, only 1 percent of waters identified as impaired are classified as such strictly because of point source discharges, according to EPA. Slightly more than half of the state’s impaired waters are impacted by a combination of point and nonpoint sources.
Nonpoint source pollution is monitored through “best management practices” (BMPs) such as the planting of vegetated buffer strips on farmland or drainage ditches that collect irrigation water for reuse. The federal regulatory authority over nonpoint sources is found in the CWA’s section 319 program, which allows states to support nonpoint source management plans. The CWA projects are approved by EPA and are implemented with matching federal funds. The State Board’s management plan, adopted in January 2000, is centered on a seven-point program that identifies 61 management measures for six nonpoint source categories, including agriculture, forestry and urban areas.
The management measures are “general goals” for the control and prevention of polluted runoff and will be completely in place by 2013, according to the State Board.
While by no means a comprehensive explanation of all the factors surrounding this complex subject, this issue of Western Water provides a snapshot of TMDLs and what they mean for water quality, supply and reliability.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our on-line store and add the May/June 2001 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart. Or, contact us by phone at 916-444-6240.
A far corner of California and Oregon is getting national attention due to the cut-off by the federal government of water for irrigation. The dispute between farming and wildlife interests began brewing almost 10 years ago when drought conditions first required farmers to cut water use in favor of saving endangered fish. Our public television documentary, Watercolors: The Challenges of the Klamath Watershed, narrated by actor Larry Hagman, tells the story of this clash between American Indian tribes, wildlife refuge managers, farmers and environmentalists. In the early 1900s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began draining the extensive marshes and lakes in the upper basin to support the growth of agriculture. Damage to the fish and wildlife was evident by the 1980s. Millions of migrating waterfowl disappeared and algae began to grow in Upper Klamath Lake causing fish to die.
Working on the documentary in the upper and lower Klamath basins, I saw people trying to stay in farming while grudgingly recognizing that today the law gives strong rights to endangered species and American Indian tribes who depend on salmon for their livelihood. The upper basin tribes’ reservation was terminated in the 1950s to create more national forest. Clearly, it’s a situation where for a long time the fish, birds and American Indians lost in favor of agriculture. Even today the wildlife refuges are the last to receive water deliveries.
Now the 1,400 small family farmers, who produce $100 million in crops, are being told they must take the full cut. They have appealed to federal court and begun a publicity campaign that includes a bucket brigade event featuring farmers passing buckets to be emptied into a dry irrigation ditch. With the many competing interests, clearly there could not be one winner here. Perhaps if the current restoration efforts had begun earlier, the crisis would not have occurred.
Our compelling documentary telling the story of the people in the Klamath watershed has aired on all Oregon and many California PBS stations as well as in many other locations including the Midwest and New York City. If you missed it, call your local PBS station and ask that it re-air the program. You can get a copy of the one-hour documentary and a half hour version from the Foundation, along with a 12-page viewer’s guide.
One subject we can all agree upon is the need to help all people have access to safe drinking water. I’ve often written and talked about the work of Water For People, an international nonprofit organization helping people in developing countries obtain safe drinking water and improve sanitation conditions.
Water For People is looking for businesses that would like to get involved with its work. We’re looking for businesses that use water as a main ingredient in their products and would like to donate to or become affiliated with Water For People. We also are hoping that more people at water agencies will become part of our workplace giving program. This can be done directly or through the United Way campaign. Kudos to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California whose employees increased by 60 percent their individual pledges. This puts them second in the country to Denver Water in workplace giving. If you are interested in learning more about these programs, call me.
In the News
Arsenic Rule Reversed
After halting a plan to lower the level of arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb, the Bush administration April 18 pledged to set a revised standard within nine months. The 10 ppb standard inherited from the Clinton administration was to become effective March 23 but U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christie Todd Whitman announced March 20 that further study is needed before a number for arsenic can be finalized.
“It is clear that arsenic, while naturally occurring, is something that needs to be regulated,” said Whitman in a statement. “But the scientific indicators are unclear as to whether the standard needs to go as low as 10 (ppb).”
One ppb is equivalent to about one drop in 14,000 gallons.
Whitman has asked the National Academy of Sciences to report on the feasibility of a standard in the range of 3 – 20 ppb. The report will “ensure that a standard will be put in place in a timely manner that provides clean, safe and affordable drinking water for the nation and is based on the best science,” Whitman said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which advocates a 3 ppb level, blasted the rule rescission as “a craven capitulation to the mining industry and other corporate interests at the expense of the health of millions of Americans.” A spokesman with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group said further delay in updating the 60-year-old standard is “unhealthy and unacceptable.”
Arsenic is the only substance permitted in drinking water that has been shown to cause cancer, according to EPA. Scientists have concluded that arsenic in drinking water could cause lung, bladder, prostate and skin cancer and might cause liver and kidney cancer. It also can harm the neurological, cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological and endocrine systems.
A new study by the Dartmouth University medical school says the 50 ppb standard is enough to cause cancer. Dartmouth toxicologist Joshua Hamilton told Knight Ridder there is “sufficient evidence” that the 50 ppb standard is not protective and that 10 ppb “is a reasonable place to go.” Officials said they will consider the new study in development of the new arsenic standard.
Krista Clark, regulatory affairs specialist for the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), said it is “only fair” for EPA to review the science behind the 10 ppb standard, given the estimated $500 million impact it would have had on California water providers. A study prepared for ACWA found that 32 percent of the 55 counties where research was gathered have average arsenic concentrations in groundwater of 10 ppb or more.