From The Editor | May 12, 2014

Top EPA Challenges In Wastewater And Stormwater

By Kevin Westerling
@KevinOnWater

US_EPA

One of the U.S. EPA’s leading voices shares the agency’s most important agenda items.

The annual Washington Forum hosted by the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) has a heavy focus on the regulatory and legislative activities, as suggested by its name and locale, and does well to attract speakers of significant standing and influence. This year’s Forum, held April 15 to 17, featured Andrew Sawyers, Director of the U.S. EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management. His presentation, summarized below, provided insight into the EPA’s goals by detailing the current and planned initiatives designed to meet them.

Green Infrastructure

Taking cues from President Obama’s vision of a “greener” America, Sawyers’ first stated objective for the EPA was green infrastructure, though he stressed that the agency is “not pushing green at the expense of gray,” referring to the continued importance of concrete infrastructure. “Green infrastructure is not a panacea … but has many significant benefits in addressing stormwater challenges,” Sawyers said.

The EPA is encouraging the broader use of green infrastructure through various means, including its technical assistance program, which has provided over $2.2 million to 37 communities since 2011. The latest round of funding was recently announced, with $860,000 divided among 14 communities.

Other examples of EPA assistance include “on-the-ground GI [green infrastructure] support” for combined sewer overflow (CSO) communities, such as the $5 million granted to Philadelphia earlier this year to improve the city’s ambitious 25-year, $2-billion green infrastructure plan, as well as national and regional summits designed to identify green infrastructure opportunities and address barriers. Furthermore, the EPA offers a webcast series centered on green infrastructure education and training.

Integrated Wet Weather Planning

The EPA realizes that stormwater is a mounting problem, but also that municipalities often have limited funds and multiple water-quality issues to address. The integrated planning approach is intended to provide municipalities the freedom to prioritize projects based on impact and cost-effectiveness, rather than a narrow, singular approach motivated by speedy compliance to Clean Water Act (CWA) requirements.

“This is a significant move from where we were in the past couple of years,” Sawyers said, citing the following benefits/capabilities offered to municipalities through integrated planning (applicable to both stormwater and wastewater):

  • Sequencing of projects in a way that starts highest priority projects first
  • Innovative solutions, (e.g., green infrastructure)
  • Affordability

With regard to affordability, Sawyers identified median household income as an important determining factor for the EPA. The full framework is available here.

Regulations

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)
The proposed national CAFO rule has lost considerable momentum, despite widespread suspicion that CAFOs are significant contributors of nutrients into waterways. I reported from the previous WWEMA meeting that the rule was on hold for five years, and Sawyers said nothing to suggest otherwise. The EPA’s efforts are currently focused on stakeholder outreach — working with states and industry, advancing changing technologies/innovations, and developing demonstration projects — as well as the creation of an Animal Agriculture Water Quality Blueprint. The blueprint is meant to increase communication with producers (i.e., livestock owners), states, and local representatives to enact voluntary measures to reduce nutrient loading and improve water quality. Planned initiatives to help inform the blueprint include a Livestock Discussion Group, Producer Recognition Program, Best Practices Conference, and partnership projects.

Vessel General Permit (VGP)
The new VGP, effective since December 2013, regulates the incidental and ballast water discharges of commercial (non-military and non-recreational) vessels greater than or equal to 79 feet in length — approximately 60,000 U.S. vessels and 12,000 foreign vessels. For the first time the VGP contains numeric ballast water discharge limits, in addition to the regulatory requirements for 26 specific discharge categories carried over from the previous (2008) VGP that it replaced.

While commercial fishing vessels and vessels smaller than 79 feet currently do not require VGPs, the moratorium will expire on Dec. 19, 2014 unless Congress takes action. The EPA is using that time, Sawyers indicated, to commission scientific studies to better understand small-vessel discharges.

Multi-Sector General Permit (MSGP)
The MSGP, first instituted in 1995 and periodically reissued, requires industrial facilities to develop stormwater pollution prevention plans (SWPPP) and to implement and maintain site-specific stormwater control measures. The new MSGP is pending, with comments closed and finalization expected in 2014. According to Sawyers, the new version has only minor changes proposed, including the streamlining of the inspection requirements and additional specificity for several of the technology-based effluent limits. Like the expired version, which has been administratively continued for existing permittees, the proposed MSGP governs 29 sectors of industrial activity in designated geographic areas.

(Note: This is not to be confused with the “Post-Construction Stormwater Rule” — an attempt to place numeric stormwater limits on new or newly developed construction sites — which was essentially abandoned.)

Sustainable Utilities And Communities

Closely tied to the EPA’s integrated planning approach is the Effective and Sustainable Water Utility Management program, an initiative the EPA has invested considerable time and resources in developing.

 “The primary effort here is strengthening our partnerships and relationships on the ground to identify what’s working across the country,” Sawyers stated. He recalled that the EPA conducted six meetings over the course of a year and half, gathering thought leaders in utility management from across the country. Many of the participants were managers of medium- and large-sized facilities, but the hope was to bring solutions to smaller, struggling utilities.

“The idea was to develop a framework of what is working, what can work, and to see how best we can transfer it elsewhere,” said Sawyers. The resulting document is freely available: “Ten Attributes of Effectively Managed Water Sector Utilities.”

Sawyers concluded with an open forum where he addressed tough questions and challenges from the audience with admirable aplomb.

My conclusion: Though the EPA sometimes works at a frustratingly slow pace, and though it can be easy to gripe with certain (often unintended) outcomes, it should be remembered that their mission — protecting the environment on a national level — is monumentally complex. This complexity and nuance requires listening and collaboration, rather than mere enforcement, and the EPA thankfully seems to be moving in that direction.

Image credit: "Environmental Protection Agency EPA," mccready © 2007, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/