Draft Guidelines Help Clarify Waters Protected by CWA

June 1, 2011
The Obama Administration has issued guidelines to clarify how far Clean Water Act (CWA) pollution prevention rules apply to streams, wetlands and ponds.

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The Obama Administration has issued guidelines to clarify how far Clean Water Act (CWA) pollution prevention rules apply to streams, wetlands and ponds.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers guidelines address a decade-long dispute and reverse 2003 and 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decisions that denied CWA protection for intermittent and seasonal streams and wetlands.

EPA said the draft guidance will protect waters that many communities use for drinking, swimming, and fishing, and will provide clearer, more predictable guidelines for determining which water bodies are protected by the CWA. The guidance is open for public comment before it takes effect.

Environmental groups praised the long-expected guidelines.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said, “Even very small streams and wetlands can contribute to our drinking water, filter pollution, and absorb flood waters. If finalized, the new guidelines will better protect more of our critical waters, and better protect Americans’ health in the process. To finish the job, the administration needs to develop a rule that will solidify these safeguards for the long term.”

The Sierra Club said, “The guidelines proposed today would conform federal policy to scientific reality: it’s impossible to safeguard rivers and lakes downstream without protecting the small, headwater streams that feed them.”

Not everyone was pleased, especially Republicans. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), said Congress should be allowed to vote on an issue of such magnitude.

He added, “EPA’s interpretation of the CWA, as reflected in this guidance document, knows no bounds, as the agency sees nearly every body of water in the U.S. -- no matter how insignificant -- as potentially falling within its reach.”

Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, said, “It is intolerable and irresponsible of the EPA to address such a fundamental issue through an informal, procedurally easier-to-issue guidance document. This is a thinly-veiled attempt to bypass formal rulemaking procedures and force implementation of the administration’s radical agenda.”

Gibbs added, “This so-called ‘guidance’ is not merely clarifying which waters are currently subject to the CWA, it is a vast expansion of the federal government’s jurisdiction and ability to impose its will on the states and the regulated community.”

Green Infrastructure

EPA also has announced a strategy to promote the use of green infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff into streams, creeks, rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

It said green infrastructure techniques would decrease pollution to local waterways by capturing rain where it falls and keeping polluted stormwater from entering sewer systems. EPA said green infrastructure also would increase economic activity, revitalize neighborhoods, create jobs, save energy, and add to recreational and green space.

The agency said stormwater is one of the most widespread challenges to water quality in the nation since large volumes of polluted stormwater flow into rivers, lakes and aquatic habitats and contribute to downstream flooding.

It said green infrastructure captures and filters pollutants by passing stormwater through soils and retaining it on site. Green infrastructure techniques include green roofs, permeable materials, alternative designs for streets and buildings, trees, rain gardens and rain harvesting systems.

Under its strategy, EPA will work with partners in 10 cities that have green infrastructure projects or plan additional projects. They are: Austin, TX.; Boston, MA; Cleveland, OH; Denver, CO; Jacksonville, FL; Kansas City, MO; Los Angeles, CA; Puyallup, WA; Syracuse, NY; and the District of Columbia.

EPA Funding

Congress and the Obama administration hammered out a compromise budget deal in mid-April that slashed EPA’s funding by $1.6 billion.

The fiscal 2011 continuing resolution sets a $1.049 trillion federal budget, down $38 billion from fiscal 2010. Most of EPA’s reductions were in the Drinking Water and Clean Water state revolving fund (SRF) programs (which were at record highs in 2010). The Drinking Water SRF will get $965 million in fiscal 2011, down from $1.387 billion in 2010, and the Clean Water SRF will get $1.525 billion, down from $2.1 billion.

The administration has proposed $9 billion for EPA in fiscal 2012 (which begins Oct. 1), including $990 million for the Drinking Water and $1.55 billion for the Clean Water funds.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies objected to the deep SRF cuts. Executive Director Ken Kirk said, “We can no longer realistically expect our nation’s water quality to improve solely on the backs of our struggling communities. Our cities and states deserve significant and reliable federal assistance, leadership and support for essential clean water infrastructure. This budget does not achieve this goal.”

In other Washington news:

-- Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has refilled a bill, which failed to pass last Congress, to require drinking water and wastewater utilities to consider using “inherently safer technology” and would impose more stringent security rules on the use of chemicals.

-- Rep. C.W. Young (R-FL) has filed a bill to excuse drinking water systems from sending annual water quality reports to their customers if the utilities met all federal standards during the period covered by the report.

-- The Water Environment Federation has launched a free stormwater newsletter that will report on research, policy updates, and other events.

-- EPA said Greenwich, CT, will pay a $200,000 penalty and rehabilitate a wastewater collection system feeding three of its major wastewater pump stations. EPA said pipe ruptures in 2005 and 2008 released 42 million gallons of raw sewage into Cos Cob Harbor.

-- The agency said Dubuque, IA, has agreed to pay a $205,000 penalty and spend $3 million to improve its water pollution control plant and sewer collection system over the next three years to settle alleged CWA violations.

-- EPA has tentatively approved a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation proposal to require boats to discharge sewage at stations on Long Island Sound rather than into the water.

-- The U.S. Geological Survey has warned that levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are increasing in urban lakes. PAHs are probable human carcinogens and are toxic to fish and other aquatic life. USGS said the largest source is coal-tar-based pavement sealants.

-- EPA has awarded Oklahoma $2,880,650 to implement best management practices in three watersheds and reduce non-point source pollution in Lake Eucha near Jay, OK.


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