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Runoff Politics

States are under court order to limit the amount of pollutants that can flow into their waters -- and help the polluters comply.


Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

The ranchers where I live in Montana don't much like dealing with governments. So a half-dozen graying cattlemen were unenthusiastic but polite when they gathered at a community center to hear what Lisa Kusnierz had to say. She's a Virginia Tech graduate who has worked the past year for Montana's water quality bureau, and she drove over from Helena to talk about why the cattlemen would have to change the way they have been grazing livestock for generations.

It all had to do with a long-ignored provision in the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and the state's 101-page plan for a TMDL -- or total maximum daily limit -- for the Shields River's prime trout waters. To comply, the ranchers will need to reduce sediment washing off their rangelands by nearly 20 percent. The county may have to pave or rebuild dirt roads to achieve a 60 percent reduction in dust that's drifting into the watershed.

Around the nation, other state pollution-control agencies are under court order to prepare TMDLs and set budgets for reducing bacteria, phosphorus, sediment, metals and other pollutants in rivers and streams. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scrapped a Clinton administration rule ordering states to turn TMDLs into enforceable plans for meeting water quality standards. But states have been plodding ahead, and EPA has approved roughly 40,000 TMDLs. Some completed documents, drafted in state capitals based on limited computer models, are still sitting on the shelf without meaningful follow up. Devising one TMDL for large water bodies such as the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound can cost $20 million or more, and meeting the standards by financing better runoff management could be daunting.

Some states have moved aggressively to come up with innovative strategies for curbing the "non-point" contaminants from widely dispersed sources. Virginia requires that TMDLs incorporate enforceable cleanup plans. The state has established limits for 40 stream segments and is working on 20 more where bacteria from livestock operations and failing septic systems surpass safe levels. In Kansas, another proactive state, the city of Hutchinson learned that cleaning up contaminated groundwater could release salty discharges that violate the salinity limits that the state developed for the Little Arkansas River. So regulators worked with municipal officials to build a sophisticated reverse-osmosis plant that will turn the contaminated water into drinking water.

A number of states, including Montana, are building support for implementing TMDLs by working with local groups such as the Shields River ranchers. Regulators are teaming up with county agricultural extension agents and state land-grant universities to partner with both rural and urban landowners to implement best management practices that curb sediment, control feedlot runoff and retard polluted runoff that ultimately contaminates water flowing through metropolitan areas downstream. In some fast-expanding metro areas, such as Boise, Idaho, and Portland, Oregon, municipal governments have been developing effluent trading programs that pay farmers to adopt agriculture practices that can cut nutrient loads more cheaply than upgrading sewage treatment plants.

Last year, the six New England states and New York's pollution-control regulators cooperated to set a multi-state TMDL for toxic mercury that's building up in fish that swim in lakes and streams. The region already has curbed most of its own emissions from municipal incinerators, but regulators are hoping that setting a strict limit for Northeastern waters will help persuade the EPA to crack down on mercury emissions drifting their way from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest.

Industry is pushing back. Utilities object that the Clean Water Act provides no authority to challenge emissions to the air. Western mining companies are hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will overrule a circuit court decision that threw out a permit allowing an Arizona mine to discharge copper that could surpass a TMDL for a desert stream. For their part, local environmentalists are prodding states to enforce TMDLs more rigorously.

New England's Conservation Law Foundation persuaded the Vermont Legislature to revamp an existing Lake Champlain TMDL and cap phosphorus discharges from sewage treatment plants and other sources that produce toxic algae blooms every summer.

In other watersheds, the resulting legal and political uncertainty over TMDLs could leave municipal governments on the hook for expensive stormwater controls and sewage treatment improvements. We've all got a stake in whether state governments can persuade upstream farmers, ranchers and other landowners to follow up on water quality goals by managing downstream runoff.

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