By Peter Chawaga, Associate Editor, Water Online
As stressors surrounding water quality resilience continue to grow, from threats posed by climate change to the development of more sophisticated cyber attacks, the country’s municipalities would do well to keep an eye out for innovative ways to defend against them.
Some communities around the country are particularly adept when it comes to staving off these threats and have much to teach their peers. A few offered their insight during a recent webinar hosted by the U.S. EPA, “Innovative State Water Agency Practices: Working Toward Resilience.”
“Identifying and communicating innovative state water agency practices can directly help water program managers across the country continue to conduct their work effectively,” said an EPA spokesperson. “Sharing the innovative work the states are performing is important to sustaining collaboration and communication channels.”
The webinar featured speakers from Oregon, Maryland, and Massachusetts with expertise in environmental quality, harmful algae bloom (HAB) monitoring, and coastal planning. It was meant to serve as an example of the types of resources available through the EPA’s State Water Agency Practices for Climate Adaptation Database, which was established with the help of the Association of Clean Water Administrators, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, and the Association of State Wetland Managers.
“An overall goal of the project is to promote a greater awareness of how state agencies are factoring resilience considerations into their water program operations,” the spokesperson said. “These select state practices serve as useful models for other state agencies, as well as local and tribal organizations, seeking to make their water programs more resilient to today’s pressing water resource issues.”
Attendees first heard from water quality experts in Oregon who are helping the state deal with increased levels of HABs. Their efforts have included the development a robust HAB-fighting program that included surveillance monitoring, implementation of total maximum daily loads for nutrients, and refined wastewater permitting.
“Some of the strategies are to restrict the available nutrients, to reduce external loading from watersheds that drain into these water bodies, reducing light available, and reducing water temperature,” said Aaron Borisenko, the water quality monitoring manager for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality. “All of these strategies are helping to reduce harmful algae blooms.”
Borisenko’s specific advice for others attempting to reduce HAB levels included tips for making the most of federal and state funding if and when it is secured. Agencies should always look at those funds as opportunities to build resilience in the future, not just react to the issues in front of them, he said.
“When opportunities exist, like [when] we received some emergency funding to help with some response … we were able to purchase cyanotoxin analyzers,” said Borisenko. “Take those opportunities to build your capacity for the future.”
The speakers from Maryland offered attendees advice on how to deal with climate change fallout that affects water quality in coastal areas.
“Maryland has long recognized that the combination of sea level rise and land subsidence has made our coastline very vulnerable to coastal hazards,” said Kelly Collins Choi, section chief of the Center for Coastal Planning at Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.
Among efforts to protect its coasts and water quality, Maryland has installed non-structural practices that curb erosion, known as “living shorelines,” added vegetation and forested buffers, introduced erosion- and elevation-based setbacks on permanent structures, and designated wildlife habitat and wetland migration corridors.
“We have also developed an optional resilience action plan that a landowner can undertake to assist in a number of activities,” Choi said. “These plans look at wetland hydraulic restoration opportunities, potential living shoreline projects, invasive species management, environmental hazard management such as relocation of septic tanks, adherence to our ‘Coast Smart Construction Code,’ removal of barriers to wetland migration such as impervious surfaces, and we work with the Maryland Historic Trust to document any vulnerable historical and cultural resources.”
In Massachusetts, Carrie Banks, the regional planner for the Division of Ecological Restoration at the state’s Department of Fish and Game, has focused on improving road-stream crossings to benefit local wildlife and improve potential flooding conditions that can bring contaminants into source water.
Her group has found that 44 percent of the state’s crossings create “moderate to severe blocking.” During certain weather conditions, this can create flooding that is problematic for water quality as well as public safety.
“The Massachusetts River Continuity Project is working to maintain stream connections with fish-friendly and flood-resilient infrastructure,” said Banks. “This is particularly important in light of changes in the intensity and frequency of precipitation events that we’ve been experiencing here in the Northeast.”
Among the efforts Banks highlighted were a push for citizen-generated data collection, which can help communities identify flooding problem areas, and the development of prioritization tools for identifying and working on the most pressing problems.
Each presenter shared experiences from their communities that can be applied by those suffering from similar threats to water quality resilience. But these were merely a sampling of the resources available through the EPA’s full climate resilience database. As climate change and these associated resiliency problems are poised to grow worse, it’s a tool that more communities around the country should become acquainted with.
Image credit: "Flood" Jennifer Kelly © 2011, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/