New EPA water quality regulations

A new EPA plan to fight water pollution is focused on the right goals, but it will present difficult scientific and technical challenges for states to wrestle with.

provide by Resources for the Future

ater quality has improved dramatically in the 28 years since the Clean Water Act was passed, due largely to reductions in industrial pollution. Now, with progress leveling off, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is preparing to enforce regulations to address the last major impediment to clean water: "nonpoint" pollution that flows into waterways from roads, sewers, farms, timber operations, and other sources.

EPA's new approach is likely to spur new improvements in water quality in the United States, according to a new study by Resources for the Future (RFF) Fellow James Boyd. However, progress will be tempered by the serious scientific and technical challenges presented by the new regulations, and by the cost of addressing these challenges.

These regulations - known as "total maximum daily load" (TMDL) rules represent a dramatic shift in water quality regulation, the report says. Traditionally, regulators have targeted industrial and municipal polluters, often prescribing technology that must be installed to reduce discharges. This approach has been successful, but it has left many pollutant sources outside the reach of regulation. Today, fewer than 10 percent of the nation's most polluted rivers are affected either primarily or secondarily by industrial sources. The new rules are far more expansive. Under the plan, EPA will require states to identify all water bodies that are in violation of existing quality standards, pinpoint the sources contributing to the problem, and develop concrete plans and timetables for bringing the water body into compliance.

Many hurdles must be cleared for regulators to successfully implement the proposed TMDL rules, however. Because they target many polluters who were not previously regulated, the TMDL regulations will alter the politics, economics, and law of water quality regulation. Dealing with resistance from newly regulated entities is likely to drive up administrative costs, the report says.

To conduct the sophisticated analyses spelled out in the regulations, states must begin to collect far more and better data than they do presently about water quality and sources of pollution, and state officials must improve their technical ability to spell out how a host of pollutants contribute to a watershed's decline. Because it is extremely difficult to establish a precise cause-and-effect relationship between a nonpoint pollutant and impaired water quality, determining adequate nonpoint controls will be difficult and contentious.

Boyd examined the experiences of several state TMDL programs, including the Columbia Slough, a 19-mile network of channels on the Columbia River floodplain near Portland, OR. Pollution sources in the slough include a complex mix of sewer overflows, urban runoff, landfill material, industrial discharges, sediments, and agricultural runoff. Interactions between ground and surface water, weather events, temperature and water quality all make it difficult to determine the sources of pollution in the waterway, requiring regulators to develop sophisticated models that simulate the transport, deposition, and ultimate fate of pollutants in the water body.

In addition to scientific and technical challenges like these, states must contend with jurisdictional conflicts that arise when pollutants flow downstream or blow in across state lines. It will be particularly important for federal officials to play an active role in regulations that involve more than one state, the report says.

One proposed feature of the TMDL program - pollution permit trading among industrial and nonpoint sources holds potential for reducing water pollution control costs in the long run, but may not be viable in the short term, the report says. Administrative, monitoring, and enforcement barriers to water quality trading have already undermined efforts to enact trading among point sources. Rather than try to enact a trading scheme immediately, officials should begin to figure out how to monitor the actions of nonpoint sources and enforce corrective actions when they violate their pollution restrictions both necessary steps if a trading scheme were to be put in place.

The study was funded by Resources for the Future. Resources for the Future is a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank located in Washington, D.C. that conducts independent research - rooted primarily in economics and other social sciences on environmental and natural resource issues