USDA Launches National Water Quality Initiative

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By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has launched a National Water Quality Initiative committed to improving one to seven impaired watersheds in every U.S. state and territory.

The program is part of the Obama administration's White House Rural Council, which is working with farmers, ranchers and forest owners to improve conservation of working lands.

The 157 selected watersheds were identified with assistance from state agencies, other federal partners, and USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). It will make $33 million available to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners this year for conservation practices to help provide cleaner water.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "American farmers are good stewards of the environment, and this initiative provides them with additional tools to protect and improve fish and wildlife habitat and water quality."

Using funds from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, NRCS will provide financial and technical assistance to producers for implementing conservation practices such as cover crops, nutrient management, filter strips and terraces.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) applauded the USDA program. It said nutrient runoff is the greatest water quality challenge facing the nation and excess nutrients -- mostly phosphorus and nitrogen -- are the direct or indirect cause of more than 50% of impairments in U.S. waters.

Ken Kirk, NACWA executive director, said, the magnitude and scope of the agricultural nutrient challenge is too large for a single initiative. "Congress needs to strengthen the Farm Bill and USDA's ability to take more aggressive action to help farmers control nutrient runoff and seek consistent and broad-based improvements to water quality."

NACWA sponsors the Healthy Waters Coalition, a collection of water, wastewater, state regulators, and sustainable agricultural organizations that advocate controlling nutrient runoff from agricultural operations. The coalition issued recommendations on March 6 targeting agriculture nutrient runoff.

"Water and wastewater utilities are under increasing pressure to control nutrients in water supplies. We need the agricultural community at the table with us to improve water quality," Kirk said.

Airport Deicing

EPA has published a rule requiring airports to better control fluids used in pavement deicing operations.

Under new effluent guidelines, both existing and new primary airports with at least 1,000 annual jet departures will be required to either use deicers that do not contain urea or meet a numeric effluent limit for ammonia.

In addition to the effluent standards for pavement deicer application, the new rule establishes performance standards for airplane deicing operations at qualifying new airports. Under the new source standards, airports with at least 10,000 annual departures in certain cold climate zones are required to collect 60% of deicing fluids.

If they discharge the collected fluids directly to U.S. waterways, they must meet chemical oxygen demand discharge limits. Existing airports are not subject to the aircraft deicing provisions of the new rule, but will continue to be subject to requirements set out in general or individual permits.

EPA said the rule would reduce pollutant discharges from deicing operations by a minimum of 16 million pounds annually.

Stormwater Management

The environmental agency also has issued a framework to help local governments develop voluntary storm and wastewater management plans and implement effective integrated approaches to reduce overflows.

The framework outlines an approach to water program management through planning that is locally-driven, flexible, and voluntary. It encourages innovative solutions such as green infrastructure to address current challenges to water quality and supply.

EPA said economic and risk analyses, cross-media impacts, and regional growth will all be considered as municipalities and regions define their best plans to implement water programs and requirements. The final framework also includes an adaptive management process for identifying and selecting new projects and modifications based on changing circumstances.

The Water Environment Federation (WEF) said the guidance will allow municipalities to identify efficiencies in implementing overlapping and competing requirements that arise from separate wastewater and stormwater projects, including capital investments and operation and maintenance requirements.

WEF Executive Director Jeff Eger said the EPA guidance "will help water managers address the most pressing public health and environmental protection issues first while balancing CWA requirements with today's limited funding."

In other Washington news:

-- The Agriculture Department has earmarked $89.4 million to support up to 23 partnership projects in Mississippi River Basin states. These projects would avoid, control and trap sediment and nutrient runoff from agricultural lands, improving water quality.

-- A Natural Resources Defense Council report said the trend toward large-scale water pipeline projects in the West could lead to water shortages and increased costs for the communities sponsoring the facilities.

-- EPA said 70 companies potentially responsible for contamination of the lower Passaic River in New Jersey will remove 16,000 cubic yards of highly contaminated sediment from a half-mile long area near Lyndhurst at their expense. The work is scheduled to begin next spring.

-- The agency said Russell Stover Candies Inc. will pay a $585,000 fine to resolve CWA violations at its facility in Iola, Kan. The agency said the company had discharged acidic wastewater to a publicly owned treatment works.

-- Homebuilder Toll Brothers Inc. will pay a $741,000 fine for stormwater discharges at its construction sites, including some on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. EPA said the company has begun a stormwater compliance program to improve employee training and increase management oversight at residential construction sites.

-- Perth Amboy, N.J., has agreed to reduce sewage and other pollutants that flow from 16 combined sewer points into the Raritan River and Arthur Kill. EPA said the city had violated the CWA by failing to maintain and operate its sewer system.

-- Mid-America Pipeline Co. and Enterprise Products Operating LLC will pay a $1 million penalty for natural gasoline pipeline spills in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska since 2007. They also agreed to spend $200,000 to identify and prevent external threats to their West Red pipeline.

-- EPA has awarded its first WaterSense program labels to irrigation systems that "use local weather and landscape conditions to tailor watering schedules to actual conditions on the site." It said they have the potential to save 110 billion gallons per year.

-- Fairhaven Shipyard Companies Inc. has agreed to pay a $175,000 penalty to resolve CWA water discharge violations at two of their facilities in Massachusetts. EPA said the firm also agreed to undertake compliance measures.

-- The House of Representatives has approved a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill that extends the exemption for drinking water and wastewater facilities from the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program.

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