Under the Environmental Protection Agency's total maximum daily load (TMDL) requirements, all bodies of water must now meet strict water quality standards. And, in states like Louisiana, that means regulatory officials are scrambling to find ways to drastically reduce non-point source load reductions, in some cases by as much as 90 percent.
Those states unable to meet the water quality guidelines in the timeframe allotted may be faced with the burden of additional regulatory red tape and more restrictive federal mandates.
“It makes me a little nervous to think how we can make these huge non-point source flow reductions and be able to guarantee such decreases with reasonable assurance, and without additional rules and regulations,” says Jan Boydstun with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality in Baton Rouge, La.
According Boydstun, who spoke at the joint meeting of the Louisiana Plant Protection Association and the Louisiana Association of Agronomists in Baton Rouge, current federal TMDL regulations mandate that states identify which water bodies are pollution “impaired,” whether it be by point source discharge, such as wastewater treatment plants, or whether it be non-point source pollution, such as water run-off from crop fields.
In addition, each state must establish priority rankings for their list of impaired water bodies and then set total maximum daily load limits to determine the amount of pollutants each body of water can assimilate and still be able to meet water quality standards.
Boydstun describes the total maximum daily load regulation as a tool for determining the allowable pollutant load for each water body in the state and providing for the establishment of any water quality-based controls necessary.
While the regulations included as part of the Clean Water Act may sound simple enough, a lawsuit by the Sierra Club seems to be tightening the leash between the Environmental Protection Agency and individual states.
“Our state and many others have been sued by the Sierra Club because it did not feel like the EPA was forcing the states to enforce these regulations,” says Boydstun. “To make a long story short, the lawsuit has resulted in a lot more TMDLs for us to complete and a much shorter timeframe in which to get them done.”
Originally, the state of Louisiana agreed to a 12-year implementation schedule with the Environmental Protection Agency. However, an October 1999 court order mandated a December 2007 implementation deadline. The court order also disapproved Louisiana's list of 609 TMDLs, instead targeting 1,711 potential TMDLs on 349 water bodies in the state. The story is the same for many other Sunbelt states.
According to Boydstun, under the TMDL regulations the manmade non-point source pollution reductions required for the state's water bodies range from around 30 percent to as much as 90 percent. The state may also need to set more stringent limits on the permits for point source pollutants.
To make matters worse, many Southern states like Louisiana must deal with water bodies with warm temperatures, little or no slope, little or no flow, and high amounts of sod and re-suspension. “With these factors, we aren't surprised that when the required model is run, we're seeing these huge nonpoint source load reduction requirements,” Boydstun says. “To me, this means our water bodies already have so much material on the bottom of them that there's isn't room for any more pollutants.”
There are some pro-active steps the agricultural industry can take, Boydstun says, to eliminate, or at least limit, further regulatory restrictions.
Currently, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is collecting edge-of-field data from a number of farming operations in the state to help determine which are the best ways to achieve better water quality using the best management practices presently utilized by farmers.
Boydstun says, “We're evaluating watershed by watershed to see how many acres of each crop type exist there and how much pollutant load comes from each type of agricultural production. Then, we're trying to determine how much we can reduce the pollutant load with the use of best management practices.
“This is the kind of data we really don't have and it's the kind we've really got to have to write a water quality implementation plan that means anything. It takes a lot of work and a lot of players, but we'll be looking at best management practices for crops such as sugarcane, soybeans, crawfish and pastureland. We'll also be monitoring water quality and making sure our data is defensible in court in case we wind up having to be tested in the courts on this,” she says.
One of the best management practices Boydstun believes will go a long way to improve water quality is conservation tillage.
“We definitely feel that conservation tillage is the best way to keep sediment out of the water bodies from the fields. And, because many of our water bodies are impaired due to low dissolved oxygen, anything that keeps oxygen-demanding substances out of the water should help us meet the TMDL restrictions,” she says.
Currently unregulated activities, which she feels will eventually be covered under TMDL regulations, include all animal-feeding operations, crawfish and catfish production, and timber harvesting.
“A lot of crawfish ponds are located on the Mermentau and Vermillion water basins,” Boydstun says. “So, if you look at the 80- to 90-percent pollutant reduction needed for the Mermentau, you can bet EPA will soon be looking at an implementation plan for crawfish production, which is currently an unregulated activity.
“The bottom line is that all water bodies must meet water quality standards by the deadlines that have been set for us. If we do not meet these water quality deadlines, I think there will be additional pressure to move toward a regulatory program for things like rice field discharge and crawfish pond discharge,” Boydstun says.
“There are a lot of uncertainties about all of this and I wish the science was a little better but it isn't,” she says. “We don't need the generalities anymore. We really need the specifics. We'll continue to monitor the water bodies and determine whether voluntary projects are successful, and we'll continue to look at what kind of backup regulatory authority may be needed if they aren't successful,” she says.
For the most up-to-date information available on total maximum daily loads, Boydstun recommends a visit to the Website: www.deq.state.la.us/technology/tmdl/index.htm. In addition to information about the TMDL requirements in Louisiana, the Website offers links to EPA and other state departments of environmental quality.