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WATER POLLUTION: EPA enforcement plan must address runoff, utilities say

Greenwire 12/18/09

EPA enforcement plan must address runoff, utilities say (Friday, December 18, 2009) Taryn Luntz, E&E reporter U.S. EPA's Clean Water Act enforcement plans should be revised to address contaminants washing off farms, parking lots and other diffuse pollution sources, according to a white paper from publicly owned water utilities.

The paper responds to EPA's announced plan to toughen water oversight by targeting the most significant polluters and compelling states to improve enforcement rates that have hovered below 3 percent (E&ENews PM, Oct. 15).

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies says EPA's plan focuses too much attention on water treatment facilities and other "point sources" of pollution, the only facilities the agency has the authority to regulate under the Clean Water Act.

"Agricultural runoff and pollution from other nonpoint sources are the leading causes of water quality impairment in the vast majority of assessed waters across the nation but are not currently targeted under the existing enforcement regime," the group says.

Money that utilities spend complying with consent decrees and EPA enforcement actions often yields little environmental benefit because other major sources are ignored, according to the paper.

NACWA advocates updating the Clean Water Act to provide EPA the authority to regulate agricultural nonpoint pollution.

The group also says EPA is inconsistent in its regulation of utilities, sometimes approving one treatment technology or practice in one state but deeming it illegal in another.

The problem is acute in the agency's handling of sanitary sewer overflows (SSO), the group says.

"The lack of a national SSO rule creates a tremendous amount of uncertainly and has forced communities to make costly infrastructure investment decisions to deal with SSO issues, oftentimes with EPA or state approval, only to later face the possibility of enforcement action because EPA has suddenly reversed its position and determined a particular technology or practice to be illegal," the paper says.

The agency also must modernize its approach to water quality, NACWA says, by looking at whole watersheds instead of narrow areas and encouraging green infrastructure and low-impact development to curb storm-water runoff.

The paper urges EPA to recraft its "woefully out of date" 1997 guidance for determining what Clean Water Act measures a community can afford.

"It is not reasonable to assume that communities can afford to pay 2 percent of their median household income to combined sewer overflow control while the enforcement office then steps in and mandates additional controls for sanitary sewer overflows, total maximum daily loads, stormwater control, nutrient control, emerging contaminants, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the many other environmental concerns municipalities must contend with."

The federal government also must recommit to funding clean water projects, the paper says.

The federal government contributes 3 percent of the nation's overall investment in water and wastewater, down from about 78 percent in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, water and wastewater infrastructure constitutes the second-largest budget expense for municipalities after education.

"In short, any efforts to improve water quality through enforcement efforts will be unsuccessful without a return of the federal government to its proper role as an investment partner in clean water with local governments," the paper says.

NACWA said it distributed the paper to EPA offices, members of Congress and public clean water agencies.

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