2000 forecast: A sea change

As the new millennium begins, the nation's water quality program is evolving rapidly through numerous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiatives and programs. While a major reauthorization of the Clean Water Act (CWA) remains an unlikely prospect in 2000, specific, focused changes are possible. Regardless of CWA reauthorization, the significant shift in the water program focus - begun in the past few years - toward nonpoint sources and the use of a watershed-based approach will continue. New initiatives are being increasingly pursued through guidance and regulations instead of legislation.

CWA reauthorization
Reauthorization of the Clean Water Act (CWA) was a high priority for the Clinton administration, elements of Congress and the environmental community several years ago. At that time, a set of relatively far-reaching reauthorization bills were being considered. This effort failed, and few in Congress appear ready to support a broad re-evaluation of authority or workings of the CWA. Instead, the focus of congressional efforts is on increasing the level of government funding for construction associated with CWA compliance and several specific issues such as wet weather flow and quality. The Clinton administration also appears satisfied to press for legislation focussed on more specific issues.

Clean Water Action Plan
The Clean Water Action Plan (CWAP), released in 1998, is a broad, comprehensive program of over 100 specific "key actions" that emphasize the watershed approach, NPS controls, strengthened water quality standards (WQS) and stewardship of natural resources. In May 1999, EPA administrator Carol Browner re-emphasized the agency's commitment to the CWAP objectives of restoring and protecting water resources on a watershed basis and intergovernmental partnership in meeting water resource goals. Numerous CWAP initiatives and actions are expected to continue in 2000, including financial incentive and control programs to reduce nonpoint source pollution, cleanup of abandoned mine sites, response to harmful algal blooms, wetland protection and ecosystem restoration.

TMDL program
In the coming year, states and EPA will continue to implement the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program, as well as other watershed-based water quality initiatives. Much of this activity has been driven by legal action against the agencies for past failures to implement TMDLs. EPA issued a draft rule on TMDLs based, in part, on the recommendations of a Federal Advisory Committee Act group. EPA will finalize this rule toward mid-year. The results will have broad application to the states, as well as the regulated community, as it sets out several specific requirements for every step of the TMDL process, including listing, development, implementation and follow-up modeling. The draft rule has elicited much interest from the regulated community and the states due to the perception that the rule will call for increasingly stringent effluent limits, controls of nonpoint sources and a substantial burden on the state agencies. Due to the scope and importance of TMDLs, lawsuits are likely to continue on the par t of the environmental community as well as regulated interests.

Nonpoint source controls
Nonpoint sources (NPS) of water quality problems are very much in the news. Examples include the impacts of Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina, as well as calls from the environmental community for increased controls. EPA's figures state that most water quality impairments are due to NPS. In the next year, EPA will continue to attempt to expand its authority over certain types of NPS (e.g., concentrated animal feeding operations, some forestry practices) by issuance of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits and inclusion of NPS in TMDLs. Several significant challenges to EPA's authority have already been mounted by NPS interest groups and more are likely to come. Several states are developing legislation and rules that seek to regulate NPS independent of EPA authority.

EPA's Advanced Notice for Public Rulemaking (ANPRM) provides a public forum for potential changes to the federal WQS regulations, focusing on water body designated uses, water quality criteria (WQC), mixing zones, antidegradation and independent application policy. Comments on the ANPRM were received by EPA in January 1999. Draft regulations are likely to be issued in early 2000. EPA has indicated that many of the issues in the ANPRM will likely be addressed through guidance - not new regulations. The new regulations are expected to focus on mixing zones, variances, designated uses and water quality standards.

Water quality standards/criteria
EPA has developed and is pursuing a comprehensive plan to update and develop new WQC values for water and sediments, and expand WQC parameters to include nutrients, microbial pathogens and biocriteria. Significant progress is expected in 2000 in the development of nutrient criteria and revision of metals WQC.

Nutrient criteria is a primary focus because it is an integral element in the plan to control NPS pollution. To date, EPA has issued a draft national nutrient strategy and draft guidance for nutrient criteria development for lakes and reservoirs, and rivers and streams. These documents outline EPA's proposed approach for developing nutrient criteria based on waterbody type and eco-region. The guidance documents also describe the data and methods that will be used to develop numeric criteria values. In 2000, EPA is expected to develop numeric criteria values or ranges for nutrients and indicator parameters such as algal concentration and turbidity.

EPA is currently working on revising WQC for metals such as copper, silver, lead and cadmium. New methodology for developing metals WQC is under review by an EPA science advisory board and is anticipated to be adopted in 2000. The new methodology incorporates the most current scientific information on metals complexation, binding to biological organisms and aquatic toxicity. The resulting WQC are expected to be much more realistic than current values.

On Nov 1, 1999 EPA announced the NPDES Stormwater Phase II Final Rule. This long-awaited rule contains four significant provisions:

  • Operators of municipal separate storm sewer systems serving communities of less than 100,000 (defined as "small MS4s") in urbanized areas will be required to obtain a NPDES permit for stormwater discharges;
  • Operators of construction sites disturbing 1 to 5 acres will now be required to obtain a NPDES permit. Previously, the stormwater permit threshold for construction sites was disturbance of more than 5 acres;
  • Industrial facilities owned or operated by a municipality of 100,000 or less (previously exempted from stormwater permit requirements) will now be subject to stormwater permits; and
  • A "no exposure" exemption may be available to a broader range of industrial facilities currently required to be covered by NPDES stormwater permits, provided that materials and activities are adequately protected from stormwater exposure.

The regulation provides additional details on the definitions of affected entities, potential waivers and deadlines. EPA guidance and general permits for small MS4s and small construction sites will be issued over the next three years. The coverage deadline for the newly affected entities is February 2003 in jurisdictions where EPA is the permitting authority. The implementation schedule for other states will vary. The no exposure option for industrial facilities has been available since the effective date of the rule.

Effluent guidelines
Final effluent limitations guidelines and standards that were recently issued or are scheduled to be released (with the proposed date of promulgation) include:

  • Centralized waste treatment (October 1999);
  • Industrial waste combustors (incinerators) (November 1999)
  • ;

  • Landfill category (November 1999);
  • Transportation equipment cleaning (June 2000);
  • Metal products & machinery (October 2000); and
  • Synthetic-based drilling fluids (December 2000)

Planned effluent guideline proposals for this year include:

  • Iron and steel manufacturing (proposal October 2000, final April 2002); and
  • Construction and development (proposal December 2000, final February 2002, with extension likely)
Safe Drinking Water Act rules
Several rules have been proposed or were recently finalized in regard to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

Water supply monitoring. Starting in 1999, water supply systems must provide all customers with an annual drinking water quality report from their local supplier, providing them with vital information on the safety and quality of their local drinking water. Starting in 2001, under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring regulation, public water supply systems must monitor for up to 30 unregulated parameters (organic, inorganic and biological). It is likely that these activities will raise public awareness, as well as identify new water quality issues throughout the nation.

Final or Proposed New Standards. The National Primary Drinking Water regulation for radon is expected to be finalized in August 2000. This regulation is expected to include a flexible approach to control of exposure to radon through multimedia mitigation programs. A revised drinking water standard for arsenic is to be proposed by Jan. 1, 2000 and finalized no later than Jan. 1, 2001. EPA is planning a proposed rule by January 2000 to control microbial contamination in groundwater-based drinking water supplies. Drinking water standards for sulfate are expected by August 2001.

UIC program. Revisions to the Underground Injection Control (UIC) regulations for Class V Injection Wells will impose stricter limits and/or phase out certain Class V injection wells. The regulations address large-capacity cesspools, industrial waste disposal wells and motor vehicle waste disposal wells.

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This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.