Get the Big PIcture and Get Engaged

Taking charge of each watershed can transform the mother of all watersheds

Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin Grumbles said, “We need to continue to evolve and adapt our approaches” for achieving better water quality. The EPA water chief was the keynote speaker during WEFTEC’s Clean Water Act plenary session in October.

That is what we have been doing all along. In colonial America, we used outhouses. Then we grew smarter and installed septic tanks. Before we knew it, we outgrew most of the space available and built systems that speed up nature’s processes. But, as Grumbles said, we still have work to do.

While outlining some of the actions the agency has taken, Grumbles mentioned that EPA recently issued guidance on watershed-based permitting.

The beauty of anything called “watershed” is that it includes more than water. “Watershed” adds drainage basins, or land, to the mix. Perhaps soon it will include air, which apparently is becoming a more important contributor to water pollutants.

(Did you see the WWN e-newsletter brief about seven states in the Northeast putting together a Clean Water Act plan that seeks the help of the Clean Air Act regulations to control mercury emissions? The Clean Water Act does not cover nonpoint source atmospheric deposition.)

You are sitting in a watershed now, but that watershed is part of a bigger watershed. “Watershed” doesn’t quite complete the picture.

“Earth” does. And that’s the real point, isn’t it? This is the planet on which we breathe, drink, eat, and enjoy life. Although thinking of Earth as our watershed is somewhat overwhelming— how do we begin to tackle global water scarcity?—it also provides a needed perspective for collaboration.

Water-sector professionals may see the U.S. funding gap and infrastructure issues as the “insurmountable Earth.” It’s a problem so big and will cost so much to repair and restore. But if you and I, sitting in our respective watersheds, start taking the right action, and neighboring watersheds do the same, perhaps “fishable and swimmable does not have to be a pipe dream,” as Grumbles said.

(Do you think this idea is naïve? Would you rather live on the moon?)

Partial solutions
EPA is trying to encourage others to take action: full-cost pricing, changing views on the value of water, water efficiency through use of certified and labeled water use products (toilets and showerheads), connecting water efficiency to energy efficiency, and green infrastructure.

LaJuana Wilcher, former EPA assistant administrator for water from 1989 to 1983, also spoke at the plenary session. Now, as a private-sector professional, “I can say whatever I really think,” she said. Wilcher explained that our streams are not meeting water quality standards, because “the way we monitor is fundamentally flawed.” She noted that:

•“EPA guidance says to use low-flow criteria when designing waste load allocations for total maximum daily loads,” she said, adding that the problems we now face are with peak flows, not low flows.

• Substituting bioassays for in-stream analyses also provides flawed information. “Air quality is not measured by species existence or abundance,” Wilcher said.

“We often talk about watersheds [at least since 1991], and we have many isolated examples of success, but not on a large scale,” she concluded.

Grumbles said that EPA also is working on the watershed aspect of water quality. The agency is doing more to help states on numeric nutrient criteria and has developed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service on a watershed approach. The agency’s partnerships with state, local, and tribal lands demonstrate EPA’s success, Grumbles said. He noted, too, that “local decisionmakers need to observe that impervious surfaces are not sustainable.”

We know what types of surfaces we should be using in new development. So what’s the problem? Are we not addressing our watersheds properly? Obviously. Where is our motivation? (Or is it really a matter of money?)

Leave it to Wilcher to speak plainly: “Perhaps the elephant on the table is not regulation but enforcement.”

Is that what you think?

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

L.K. Williams is editor of Water and Wastewater News.

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