EPA Outlines Strategy for Protecting Nation's Waters

The Environmental Protection Agency has developed a document outlining its strategy for setting watershed-based standards and criteria over the next 6 years.

The Environmental Protection Agency has developed a document outlining its strategy for setting watershed-based standards and criteria over the next 6 years. The report, "Strategy for Water Quality Standards and Criteria: Setting Priorities to Strengthen the Foundation for Protecting and Restoring the Nation's Waters," is the product of a review of the existing water quality standards and criteria within the context of all clean water programs.

The review focused on clean water goals, mandates and authorities, and EPA's current strategic goals for clean water and other strategic planning efforts. The review also focused on major needs of the current water quality standards and criteria programs. These include water quality monitoring, total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits, nonpoint source programs, oceans and wetland programs, and source water protection.

The review reflects the results of more than 50 listening sessions with over 350 people during April-September 2001 and recent recommendations from the National Research Council, the General Accounting Office, and the Inspector General. The listening sessions included both in-person and telephone interviews with states, EPA program offices, and stakeholder groups.

The strategy is intended solely as a planning document and does not impose legally binding requirements on EPA, states or the regulated community.

The strategy document lists 10 "highest priority" actions identified by the Office of Science & Technology (OST). The OST believes those key actions will address the most important environmental problems, accelerate the adoption and use of appropriate water quality standards, reduce burdens and impediments to program implementation, and promote broad participation in activities affecting the nation's receiving waters.

The priority actions have been organized in two groups: actions 1 through 6 are criteria-related actions, and actions 7 through 10 are standards-related actions. All 10 actions are equally important; they are not listed in priority order.

Following is a brief synopsis of the 10 top priorities:

1. Issue implementation guidance for the 1986 bacteria criteria for recreation.

This guidance is a major and immediate need due to the number of waters with bacteria impairments and the significant gaps in policy and technical guidance for implementing the recommended EPA criteria. It focuses on EPA's bacteria criteria published in 1986 for two bacterial indicators: E. coli and enterococcus.

The guidance will assist states and authorized tribes with such issues as risk levels used in the criteria; implementation in NPDES permits, attainment decisions, and monitoring and advisories; and implementation in light of uncertainty inherent in the criteria.

OST issued a draft of the guidance in 2002, and will publish the final guidance in 2004 after completing the review of comments and analysis of scientific information. Additionally, the guidance will assist states that are required under the Beach Act of 2000 to adopt bacteriological criteria for coastal recreation waters that are as protective as EPA's criteria recommendations.

In the next two years OST will also publish approved analytical methods under 40 CFR part 136 for E. coli and enterococcus. States requested the methods to help measure attainment of the criteria and to support issuance of discharge permits.

2. Produce and implement a strategy for the development of pathogen criteria for drinking water and recreational use.

According to the 2002 state section 303(d) listings, pathogens are the second most frequent cause of water quality impairments under the Clean Water Act.

A number of initiatives such as the Interim Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule and the 2000 Beach Act are important in reducing the risk of waterborne microbial disease and will continue. In light of emerging risks, OST, along with other participating EPA Office of Water (OW) offices, is developing a Strategy for Waterborne Microbial Disease Control. The microbial strategy will contain ongoing and needed actions selected by EPA technical work groups and reviewed by scientists and the public.

3. Produce and implement a strategy for the development of suspended and bedded sediment criteria.

Sedimentation and siltation problems account for more identified water quality impairments of U.S. waters than any other pollutant. Developing quantifiable water quality criteria for sedimentation will require research to identify sedimentation indicators, analytical methods, ecological relationships, reference conditions, and waterway classification systems.

As a first step, OST will develop a strategy for how best to develop such criteria. The strategy will set the course that will ultimately lead to suspended and bedded sediment criteria.

OW's Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds (OWOW) has coordinated the development of guidance for TMDLs involving sediment, including an assessment of the state of knowledge and innovative guidance on assessing watersheds for river stability and sediment supply. Additionally, OST and OWOW are working with the Office of Research and Development (ORD) to pursue sedimentation research as part of ORD's aquatic stressors framework and implementation plan for effects research.

4. Provide technical support to states and tribes for developing and adopting nutrient criteria and biological criteria.

Nutrient-related issues also rank among the highest needs for the criteria program. Excessive nutrients are among the top four leading causes of water quality impairments. Most states recognize the need for such criteria, but because of the difficulty and complexity of the task, only two states to date have established a complete numeric baseline for nutrient problems and even these are specific to lakes only.

In 2001–2002 OST issued 28 nutrient criteria documents covering all freshwater lake and river ecoregions, and guidance recommending that states establish plans for developing and adopting criteria.

With active leadership from EPA and states, all states now have bioassessment programs for streams and small rivers, and over half the states have adopted at least narrative biocriteria into their water quality standards. Nevertheless, states and tribes need continued support to strengthen the use of biocriteria in water quality standards and to initiate the use of biocriteria for other water body types in addition to streams and small rivers.

5. Develop and apply a systematic selection process to produce new and revised water quality criteria for chemicals to address emerging needs.

OST agrees with stakeholders that there is an urgent need to develop new and updated water quality criteria. The growing need to keep abreast of emerging contaminants of concern as well as new information on familiar constituents is a constant challenge. So too are the rising costs of developing individual criteria documents.

The key to successful use of limited resources is to focus on developing those criteria that will have the greatest effect across the country, fill critical gaps, and reduce uncertainty in water quality management decisions. OST will establish a systematic process that takes these factors into account when selecting criteria for development and will then derive new and revised criteria based on this process.

6. Complete the national consultation with the Federal Services on existing aquatic life criteria.

The national consultation on 49 aquatic life water quality criteria is a key action established in the 2001 memorandum of agreement between EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regarding enhanced coordination under the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. The consultation is particularly important because water quality standards containing these criteria are the basis for many TMDLs, permits and other actions.

The first step in the consultation is for EPA to prepare biological evaluations of the degree to which each criterion may affect endangered and threatened species. A team of EPA and Service scientists has drafted a methodology for these evaluations. It will undergo peer review before being finalized and applied to review specific criteria.

The memorandum of agreement specifies other actions including consulting on new and revised standards and on certain NPDES permits, conducting cross-training between the agencies, organizing early participation of the three agencies in triennial reviews of water quality standards, and elevating unresolved issues to management's attention.

Most of these activities are currently underway.

7. Provide technical support, outreach, training and workshops to assist states and tribes with designated uses, including use attainability analyses and tiered aquatic life uses.

Clean Water Act regulatory programs, such as discharge permits and TMDLs, are geared toward achieving water quality standards. The public relies on EPA, the states and authorized tribes to set designated uses that reflect the goals of the Clean Water Act. This priority strategic action will help clarify states' and tribes' understanding of how to conduct use attainability analyses (UAAs). It will help states and tribes to make decisions related to adjustments of uses such as when higher uses can be attained but are not designated in standards or when higher uses have been designated that cannot be attained.

Additionally, this action will help states and tribes decide when use adjustments should not be made, such as removing a designated use that is being attained, has been attained since 1975, or can be attained.

8. Provide implementation support concerning technical issues affecting permits and TMDLs, beginning with technical support and outreach concerning the duration and frequency component of existing water quality criteria.

Water quality standards and criteria provide the environmental baselines needed to regulate discharges to water and determine the extent of cleanup actions. New collaboration across programs must occur to solve the Nation's water quality problems. In particular, there must be a common understanding of the how standards and criteria will be applied.

The goal of this priority strategic action is to enable states to implement criteria effectively, considering the scientific basis, in monitoring design, attainment decisions, TMDL development, site specific conditions, and permit issuance.

OST and its partners will provide technical support, training and outreach for implementing the duration and frequency components of existing numeric criteria, and in establishing and applying mixing zone policies. Additionally, OST will provide technical support, training and outreach on additional implementation issues of importance (e.g., wet weather). On an ongoing basis, OST with its partners will also develop new implementation support or reference appropriate existing implementation guidance when issuing new or revised criteria documents.

9. Identify any drinking-water source waters whose water quality standards do not protect the use, and work with regions, states, and tribes to correct any deficient standards as soon as possible.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, states are mandated to assess each of their source waters in order to determine the susceptibility of public water systems to threats in their watersheds. These assessments will help to protect source waters more effectively and prevent pollutants from entering the waters in concentrations harmful to human health.

The Clean Water Act will play a major role in these efforts and includes many regulatory and nonregulatory tools that can protect source waters. Full use of those tools can only occur, however, if the water quality standards for those waters are fully protective.

OST, along with EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water (OGWDW) and EPA's regional offices, will work with states and authorized tribes to identify and correct any state water quality standards that do not provide adequate protection for contaminants of concern for drinking water usage.

10. Develop a web-based clearinghouse for exchanging information on critical water quality standards issues, beginning with antidegradation.

Several stakeholders suggested during listening sessions that EPA should establish a means for sharing information about approaches that have worked for some states and could potentially be applied elsewhere. The suggested "clearinghouse" or "resource center" approach has been a successful way to share information in other programs.

OST will be developing this clearinghouse with an initial focus on antidegradation, since stakeholders indicated the importance of addressing antidegradation. EPA's regulation requires states to adopt antidegradation policies and to identify implementation methods for the policies.

Antidegradation procedures are designed to preserve water quality in outstanding water resources; keep clean waters clean where possible, considering important social and economic development; and prevent loss of existing uses through degradation. Implementing such procedures can prevent further waters being added to the list of impaired waters needing TMDLs.

Conclusion

A pdf version of the strategy is available for viewing and downloading from EPA's web site at: www.epa.gov/waterscience/standards/strategy.

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