EPA Issues Nonpoint Source Guidance Giving States Monitoring Flexibility

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By Amena H. Saiyid  

Under final guidance for state nonpoint source programs released April 12, the Environmental Protection Agency will not require states to use limited nonpoint source program grants to monitor the quality of all waters that have been identified for priority attention by the Agriculture Department because of nutrient runoff.

That is a change from the draft version of the guidelines issued in November 2012 in which EPA stated its intention to require use of those funds for monitoring all priority waters.

In the final Nonpoint Source Program and Grant Guidelines for States and Territories, EPA allows states more flexibility. States will still have to monitor in at least one watershed to be selected from among the priority areas identified by USDA in its National Water Quality Initiative

The agency said it would issue separate guidance and technical information, proposing criteria to help states determine which watersheds to monitor.

The final nonpoint source guidelines, which have not been revised since 2003, spell out the conditions and circumstances in which Clean Water Act Section 319 grants can be used and leveraged with other federal, state, and local programs to address impairments to water quality from nonpoint sources. The guidelines take effect in fiscal year 2014 for all activities and programs funded by Section 319 nonpoint source grants.

Under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act, states, territories, and tribes receive grants for technical assistance, financial assistance, education, training, technology transfer, demonstration projects, and monitoring to assess the success of specific nonpoint source implementation projects.

EPA Responds to Concerns

Nonpoint source pollution arises from nutrient and sediment runoff from farms and from stormwater runoff and heavy metals found in urban environments. EPA said pollution from nonpoint sources remains the largest source of water quality impairments in the nation.

In the November 2012 draft guidelines, the agency said it would require monitoring of all watersheds identified under the USDA initiative, using Section 319 funds. EPA decided to relax its monitoring requirements in response to comments filed by the Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents state regulators.

At that time, states said the priority watersheds are eligible to receive more funds under USDA's National Water Quality Initiative than states can spare under limited nonpoint source grants (44 ER 34, 1/4/13).

Under USDA's National Water Quality Initiative, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has identified 157 priority watersheds that have been impaired by nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment runoff from farmlands, ranches, and forests. Those projects are slated to receive $33 million through the USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (43 ER 1821, 7/13/12).

By comparison, the Section 319 program allocates $165 million per year for grants to all 50 states for a variety of programs.

“EPA responded to significant concerns that states had with the number of NWQI watersheds they would have to monitor by allowing greater flexibility,” Alexandra Dunn, ACWA executive director and general counsel, told BNA April 12.

The final guidance document said states “will devote” Section 319 or other resources to monitor water quality results in selected watersheds where circumstances are aligned for assessing water quality impacts from conservation practices.

In addition, EPA said 50 percent of all Section 319 funds received by states should be spent on watershed-based plans. Moreover, EPA said states in consultation with the agency have the flexibility to use a limited amount of watershed-based project funds for activities to protect unimpaired waters against future threats.

Limited 319 Funding

The final guidance document also encourages states to look for alternative sources of funding, acknowledging the limited funds that Congress appropriates for Section 319 programs.

In FY 2012, Congress appropriated $165 million for Section 319 grants. EPA has been requesting the same amount in FY 2013 and in FY 2014.

EPA in the final guidance will no longer require states to set aside $100 million to develop watershed-based plans to address runoff in impaired lakes and streams. Instead, EPA in the guidance said it would require a revised “set aside” of at least 50 percent of a state's allocation for watershed projects.

It also is removing the 20 percent cap it had required in the 2003 guidance for statewide nonpoint source monitoring assessment.

By Amena H. Saiyid  

The final Nonpoint Source Program and Grant Guidelines for States and Territories is available at http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/nps/upload/319-guidelines-fy14.pdf.