McCarthy Urges Integrated Approach By Utilities, Officials to Address Water Issues

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By Amena H. Saiyid

Water utilities as well as federal and state regulatory agencies need to move away from a narrow “silo approach” in protecting water resources and instead consider an integrated approach for tackling wastewater, drinking water and stormwater issues with an eye toward a changing climate, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said March 23.

“This is where you get the most synergies,” McCarthy told the 2015 Water Policy Conference of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which runs March 22-25.

McCarthy described the integrated approach in relation to the response to a weekend-long drinking water ban imposed in Toledo in August 2014 because of harmful algae that released toxins, contaminating drinking water supplies.

According to the EPA, the algae blooms in Lake Erie resulted not only from excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in upstream areas but also from warm temperatures in shallow waters that spurred algae growth.

“If you look at harmful algae blooms, there aren't just happening at Lake Erie,” she said. “They are happening all over the United States.”

McCarthy said it's not enough to have people return and be told that the drinking water is safe. The goal is to keep the water systems safe from the toxins, she said.

To that end, the EPA is getting ready to issue health advisories and to develop analytical tools to detect the harmful blue-green algae toxins. “We know we have to look at establishing concentration levels that people can rely on that is based on science,” she said.

Protecting Upstream Waters

McCarthy also said upstream waters have to be protected from pollution; otherwise, water utilities downstream will bear the costs of treating the pollutants. She said one out of three U.S. residents get their water supplies from streams and wetlands located upstream. The upcoming final waters of the U.S. rule, now known as the Clean Water Rule (RIN 2040-AF30), would protect such waters, she said.

“Clean water is essential in so many ways,” McCarthy said, noting that manufacturing, brewing and farming need clean water.

At the same time, she said, climate change will affect the water sector the most. She said manufacturing companies will start relocating to the U.S. when they realize that we have clean water supplies and other parts of the world are running out. “That is why it is important for us to protect our water supplies, so we don't lose out,” she said.

McCarthy said the Clean Water Rule, which the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jointly proposed April 2014, would reflect the latest science and the law.

The regulation to clarify the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act was “a difficult rule to write” because the Clean Water Act hasn't been amended in decades, she acknowledged. But, “hopefully, we will have bright-line distinctions that everyone can rely on” for regulatory certainty.

McCarthy reiterated that both the corps and the EPA are working hard to issue the final rule this spring.

Members of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies include the largest publicly owned drinking water systems in the U.S., serving more than 130 million Americans.

Federal Jurisdiction Over Waters

As proposed, the Clean Water Rule would bring under federal jurisdiction all tributaries of streams, lakes, ponds and impoundments as well as wetlands that affect the chemical, physical and biological integrity of larger, navigable downstream waters. The proposed rule also would seek case-by-case determinations of Clean Water Act jurisdiction for waters that are isolated and located in the uplands (79 Fed. Reg. 22,188).

Coverage under the Clean Water Act would mean that discharge of pollutants or dredging and filling of wetlands and waters would require permits. Pesticide application at or near waters is currently covered by National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits issued under the act.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com