TMDLs: The Revolution is at Hand
The next big thing in water quality management — measuring specific pollutants in bodies of water and setting limits for those pollutants — is likely to impact land use and planning, but the exact ramifications remain unclear.
After years of delay, federal and state agencies are developing definitions to show how much pollution can be allowed in a water body before it becomes polluted. These definitions are known as total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs.
Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act mandates the TMDL process, which requires states to identify all water bodies that do not meet water quality standards, and then create TMDLs for them. Although Congress approved the Clean Water Act in 1977, states ignored TMDLs for years while cleaning up obvious sources of pollution, such as sewage treatment plants. But following a series of lawsuits and the progress made cleaning up some pollution, the focus has now shifted to cleaning up pollution from other sources, such as agriculture, forestry operations and stormwater runoff. TMDLs will play a big part in this latest effort.
California currently has more than 500 water bodies that fail to meet federal water quality standards. And according to a recent state report on TMDLs by the California State Library's Research Bureau, TMDLs have "a long reach into the realm of land management practices."
"[T]he TMDL program is to become a basis for not just NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit effluent limits and conditions, but also many other water pollution control efforts that fall outside the traditional realm of water quality regulation," said the report, which pointed to watershed protection efforts.
According to the Research Bureau report, "TMDL requirements may prove to be the most important change in environmental law in California since the Endangered Species Act, and the most significant change in water quality control since the Clean Water Act itself."
The state government has taken notice. According to a recent California legislative analysis, "TMDL requirements have the potential to greatly expand the scope, impact, and economic cost of water quality regulations, and could change the way that the agriculture, forestry and construction industries do business."
Still, it may be many years before the full impact of TMDLs are felt. "It's really at the embryonic stages," said Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, an environmental group focused on Santa Monica Bay.
"It's too early to say," what the impact will be, said Doug Brewer, a water quality specialist with Jones & Stokes, an environmental consulting firm in Sacramento.
Efforts to create TMDL standards are under way, driven by litigation from environmental groups as well as direction from the federal EPA. Development of the actual TMDL standards could take several years as scientific data is examined. In a recent lawsuit settlement involving TMDLs for 156 waterways in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, the EPA was given 13 years to develop 92 TMDLs, although the first TMDLs are due next year, Gold said.
Still, TMDLs are an important tool for environmental organizations like Heal the Bay. Gold called TMDLs "a tool to ensure that watershed protection is a high priority in planning decisions."
For example, the TMDL program could restrict or prevent the discharging of additional treated wastewater into a river with high pollution levels — thus halting a proposed development.
TMDLs, Brewer said, will "hopefully shed some light or understanding on the assimilative capacity of a river to accept waste material." Brewer is currently working on a TMDL project for the San Joaquin River, which catches wastewater from farms and cities in the San Joaquin Valley.
TMDLs will focus more attention on agricultural activities, Brewer said, because they will show measurements of pesticides and herbicides in water supplies.
If wastewater can't be sent into a river, cities will have to curtail development, or more likely, to reuse and recycle their wastewater. That could bring added costs to development or resistance from citizens who are uncomfortable about reusing wastewater.
According to the state report, regulators of many of the state's coastal waterways are either being required to develop TMDLs, or are likely to get hit with lawsuits demanding they set TMDLs. These waterways include 18 north coast watersheds, Newport Bay, portions of Santa Monica Bay, San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.
California lagged in doing much about TMDLs until this year, when Gov. Gray Davis' budget included $9.9 million for them. Of that figure, $6 million was provided by the federal government. The money will be used by the state's nine regional water quality control boards to develop TMDLs. It is the first time money has been specifically allocated for such work. But based on the number of waterways that need to be studied, "that's a drop in the bucket," said Brewer.
The state Legislature also is beginning to deal with TMDLs. AB 982, introduced by Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny, D-National City, was approved by the Assembly and passed the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality before the summer recess. The measure would set up an advisory group to help the State Water Resources Control Board as it develops a more comprehensive TMDL program, and ensure the Legislature is kept up to date on the board's activities.
An analysis of AB 982 said that "the regulatory cost of this program ranges from $5 million to $1 billion, excluding the cost to industries and urban areas of pollution controls needed to meet more stringent standards."
EPA regulations do not specify the process by which states should develop TMDLs. Furthermore, the state has not adopted guidelines for TMDL development, according to the Research Bureau.
The Research Bureau report stated, "The costs of additional pollution controls to meet the load allocations and wasteload allocations could be very high." The report noted that municipal and industrial dischargers are worried that they will get stuck with the costs of cleaning up waters to meet TMDLs.
The Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District filed suit against the State Water Resources Control Board in June 1998 over TMDLs, alleging that the state did not consider the economic costs when it adopted its Section 303(d) list of polluted waterways. The California Association of Sanitation Agencies has intervened in the Sacramento district's suit, while the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Santa Monica and San Francisco Baykeepers have joined the state's defense.
Fran Vitulli, spokesperson, State Water Resources Control Board, (916) 657-0941
Mark Gold, Heal the Bay, (310) 581-4188
Doug Brewer, Jones & Stokes, (916) 737-3000
The report: TMDLs: The Revolution in Water Quality Regulation, www.library.ca.gov/html/statseg2c.cfm