EPA Regional Focus: Nutrients, Stormwater Challenge the Southeast

Nutrients, stormwater management, drought planning and meeting regulatory requirements in the midst of an economic downturn are all concerns for water utilities in EPA Region 4. When it comes to numeric nutrient criteria, Florida has been the Region's focus in recent months. Many of the major cities in Region 4 are working under Consent Decrees to address CSO/SSO issues. They include Miami, Atlanta, Birmingham, Knoxville and Louisville.

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Nutrients, stormwater management, drought planning and meeting regulatory requirements in the midst of an economic downturn are all concerns for water utilities in EPA Region 4. When it comes to numeric nutrient criteria, Florida has been the Region’s focus in recent months. Many of the major cities in Region 4 are working under Consent Decrees to address CSO/SSO issues. They include Miami, Atlanta, Birmingham, Knoxville and Louisville.

By James Laughlin, Editor, WaterWorld

Nutrients, stormwater management, drought planning and meeting regulatory requirements in the midst of an economic downturn are all concerns for water utilities in EPA Region 4. Covering eight states in the Southeast, the region is the largest for EPA in terms of geographic area.

“The three big pollutants that the states most frequently report as causing impaired waters in the Southeast are nutrients, microbial contamination and sedimentation or total suspended solids,” said James Giattina, Director of Water Protection Division in Region 4. “Nutrients are clearly a regional and national priority. We are working with all eight of our states to make sure they are on schedule for developing numeric nutrient criteria.”

When it comes to nutrients, Florida has been the Region’s focus in recent months. EPA issued numeric nutrient criteria for Florida’s inland water bodies in late 2010 after determining the state’s narrative standards for water quality did not effectively address the nutrient problem. In April, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) submitted a petition requesting that EPA withdraw the rule and refrain from proposing or promulgating any further numeric nutrient criteria. In return, FDEP promised to move forward on its own rulemaking for nutrient criteria.

Giattina said his office supports Florida’s effort to develop its own nutrient criteria, and recognizes the challenges involved

“Nutrients are a challenging issue for multiple reasons, from a science and policy perspective, and from a social perspective,” he said. “We are trying to attack the problem on multiple fronts and doing everything we can to insure all the sources are doing what they can to reduce their loads where it’s appropriate.”

One major challenge has been the sensitivity of streams to nutrient inputs, he said.

“Often when we look for protective levels in ambient waters we come up with scientifically defensible values that are very low … often around the current limits of technology or below.”

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Stormwater

Stormwater management has been a significant issue in recent years. Many of the major cities in Region 4 are working under Consent Decrees to address CSO/SSO issues. They include Miami, Atlanta, Birmingham, Knoxville and Louisville.

“We have been working very hard with our states to approve their permits for municipalities, both phase one and two permits. We are making pretty significant progress in that regard,” Giattina said.

As part of the region’s stormwater initiative, EPA has been emphasizing use of green infrastructure, providing municipalities with some flexibility on how they deal with stormwater and come into compliance for combined sewer and sanitary sewer overflows.

One issue with stormwater is the problem of sedimentation and total suspended solids in streams. Often these issues are the result of flow modifications and altering the hydrology of aquatic systems, Giattina said. This can be an issue with both too much water, leading to flooding, and with not enough water in rivers and streams.

In the future, identifying appropriate minimum flows for rivers and streams may become and element in state water quality standards. The goal would be to insure that enough flow is present to protect designated uses and prevent degradation.

“We have had some states already move forward on this front and begin to look at flow as part of their water quality standards,” Giattina.

Use of green infrastructure and other stormwater management techniques can help to stabilize flows and prevent what Giattina called “suburban syndrome” – altered hydrology resulting in radical variations in peak flows and low flows in streams.

Drought Planning

While recent rains have ended drought across much of the Southeast – at least for now many states in the region have become more active in developing drought management programs. EPA is not directly involved in water quantity and allocation issues, but does play a role in planning for water storage reservoirs.

A number of new water supply reservoirs are being considered in the region. Such projects must be permitted under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and administered by the Army Corps of Engineers. EPA has oversight responsibility over that program.

As states and regions conduct “Alternative Analysis” required for such proposals, EPA wants to insure that communities are first looking at conservation and water efficiency to reduce demand, Giattina said.

“Through water conservation and water efficiency we can sometimes eliminate the need for water supply reservoirs or minimize the size and impact of those reservoirs,” he said. “Some reservoirs are going to be needed but we’re hoping the states can begin to think strategically about where those reservoirs need to be.”

Drinking Water

The most significant challenge looking forward on the drinking water side in Region 4 is the growing concern over personal care products, pharmaceuticals and emerging contaminants that are present in the environment but don’t have existing drinking water standards and maximum standard levels or goals.

“Looking forward I think that’s going to pose a significant challenge,” Giattina said.

It’s too early to tell what the impacts will be, but there have already been instances of chemical contaminants being identified in groundwater and surface water. A specific example is perfluorinated compounds, which are chemicals that have been widely used in waterproof coatings, clothing and food wrappers.

Another major issue impacting water quality in the Southeast is surface mining. EPA Region 4 is working to insure “environmentally sound practices” are in place in eastern Kentucky and the Appalachia region, particularly Tennessee. While the region is not seeing the type of mountain top mining under attack in West Virginia, the region does have significant mine operations that can impact aquatic resources and ultimately drinking water supplies.

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