Get the Big PIcture and Get Engaged
Taking charge of each watershed can transform the mother of all watersheds
- By L. K. Williams
- Dec 03, 2007
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.