Draft TMDL Plan Focuses on Protecting Waters, Not Just Restoring Impaired Ones

from Daily Environment Report™

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

By Amena H. Saiyid

State agencies may be able to assess and develop plans to protect healthy waters alongside those to restore impaired ones as part of a yearlong effort by the Environmental Protection Agency and state water agencies to reform the process for writing total maximum daily load plans.

A TMDL plan calculates the maximum level of pollutants that each point source, such as wastewater utilities, and nonpoint source, such as farms, may discharge into a body of water and still allow the water to meet water quality standards. States, territories, and tribes with EPA oversight develop lists of impaired waters and develop TMDL plans for them under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act.

Allowing states the option to consider protecting healthy waters, or waters that are not listed as impaired under Section 303 (d) of the Clean Water Act, in TMDL plans starting in 2016 is a new concept that has not been part of the program before, Alexandra Dunn, executive director and general counsel for the Association of Clean Water Administrators, told BNA Aug. 17.

She said this option will ensure that water quality standards are maintained at all waters, not just those that are impaired.

Six Elements Included in Draft Plan.

The option to protect healthy waters is one of the six elements in a draft plan that EPA and ACWA have jointly developed since August 2011 to reform the TMDL program, according to the document obtained by BNA.

The five other elements of the plan include prioritizing TMDLs for the most impaired waters starting in 2016, considering alternatives to TMDLs starting in 2018, assessing both healthy and impaired waters on a site-specific basis by 2020, engaging the public in the TMDL planning process by 2014, and integrating with other Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act programs no later than 2016.

EPA is receiving comments on the draft document and intends to make it publicly available by mid-September. The agency shared the document at ACWA’s annual meeting in Park City, Utah, which ran Aug. 12-15, Dunn said.

The joint vision plan is based on the lessons that states have learned from writing nearly 50,000 TMDL plans and represents the “first comprehensive effort” to reform the TMDL program, Dunn said.

“We realized that we were focusing on just getting the TMDLs for all impaired waters rather than for those waters that would benefit most from restoration,” Dunn said.

Large Number of TMDLs Written.

States faced a number of lawsuits in the early years of the 2000 decade from environmental groups that forced them to write TMDLs at a rapid pace, she said.

“We are on the cusp of developing our 50,000th TMDL, the document said. “We have measured and observed whether and how well listing and TMDL results have been implemented on the ground, incorporated into control actions for point and nonpoint sources, and improved water quality, and led to water quality restoration. The experience gained in assessing these waters and in pursuing individual TMDLs has not only contributed to the understanding and restoration of specific waters, but has also revealed where there are opportunities to make better strides toward water quality improvement and protection, both from an environmental standpoint as well as efficient program management.”

For instance, Dunn said, states have written TMDLs for waters impaired by atmospheric deposition of mercury. In those instances, states realized there was not much they could do to restore the waters through the Clean Water Act because atmospheric deposition of pollutants falls under the Clean Air Act. In such instances, she said a TMDL would not be the answer but an alternative method or integrating with Clean Air Act programs could provide the solution.