September 2011, Vol. 23, No.9

Evolution of a practice


Green infrastructure, numeric limits are among recent trends shaping the stormwater field

As a relatively new discipline, stormwater management continues to undergo significant shifts in approach and emphasis as scientific understanding changes and experience suggests potential improvements. With the scheduled release this fall by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its long-awaited stormwater rulemaking, stormwater management practices in the United States can only be expected to experience further change.

If recent trends are a guide, future management practices likely will be expected to meet more stringent performance requirements while continuing the ongoing shift away from capturing, conveying, and storing stormwater to controlling it at the source to the extent possible.

Will numeric limits become more common?

Federal regulation of stormwater has long proven controversial, and this tendency has only continued of late as EPA has encouraged greater use of numeric effluent limits in National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s).

As a congressional staffer during the 1980s, Benjamin Grumbles worked on the 1987 reauthorization of the Clean Water Act. During the congressional conference on the reauthorization bill, the subject of how to establish EPA’s stormwater permitting program was so contentious that lawmakers addressed it last among all the issues to be resolved, said Grumbles, a former assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Water who today serves as executive director of the Clean Water America Alliance (Washington, D.C.). Aware of the many challenges associated with imposing numeric standards as part of stormwater permits, Congress instead opted to require that MS4 permit holders reduce the discharge of pollutants to the “maximum extent practicable” (MEP), Grumbles noted, typically by means of best management practices. However, “over time the tension and the trends in the regulatory arena have been to go beyond the MEP-only process and to start including numeric limits” in MS4 permits, he said.

The issue of numeric effluent limits for MS4 permit holders recently came to the fore in the wake of a November 2010 EPA memorandum updating aspects of the agency’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program. Among various provisions, the EPA memo recommended that permit writers, when feasible, include numeric effluent limitations as part of discharge permits for MS4s, if necessary to meet water quality standards. In a 2002 memo, EPA had indicated that it expected numeric limits to be used rarely as part of MS4 discharge permits. However, in its 2010 memo, EPA stated that “[t]hose expectations have changed as the stormwater permit program has matured.” Instead, the agency recommended the use of numeric effluent limitations that “create objective and accountable means for controlling stormwater discharges.”

Upon its release, the November memo provoked criticism on many fronts, including the language advocating the use of numeric effluent limitations in municipal stormwater permits. In the eyes of some, the approach articulated by EPA amounts to a significant revision of the requirements associated with municipal stormwater discharge permits. However, “EPA does not believe that the memorandum presents a substantive change in requirements applicable to stormwater discharge permits,” said Enesta Jones, an agency spokesperson. Rather, the memo “reflects the incremental evolution of the stormwater permits program and the TMDL program that has been occurring since 2002,” Jones said.

The growing shift toward green infrastructure

When it comes to the types of techniques used to manage stormwater, regulatory changes during the past several years generally have moved in the direction of requiring more effective, efficient methods for meeting watershed goals, said Neil Weinstein, executive director of the Low Impact Development Center (Beltsville, Md.). Focused as it was on the concept of reducing the rate of peak flows, the “first generation of stormwater management techniques was based on a one-dimensional premise for protection,” Weinstein said. However, additional research has shown that such techniques are “not always the best for watershed protection,” he said, and do not address certain pollutants. For these reasons, greater emphasis is now placed on developing and applying green infrastructure approaches such as bioretention, permeable pavers, and green roofs.

Like most efforts related to stormwater management, adoption of green infrastructure techniques is driven in large part by regulatory requirements. “I think people are getting on board where they have to,” said Jeff Cantwell, chair of the stormwater committee for the Chesapeake Water Environment Association. For example, private developers in Philadelphia have begun investigating ways to implement green infrastructure as a result of that city’s recent policy of assessing stormwater fees based on a property’s size and amount of impervious coverage, Cantwell noted. However, green infrastructure has received much less attention in other areas of Pennsylvania where such fees have not been implemented, he said.

Perhaps more than any other entities, communities with combined sewers are driven by regulatory requirements regarding clean water. In recent years, efforts to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs) increasingly have featured elements associated with green infrastructure, said Carol Hufnagel, national wet weather practice leader for Tetra Tech Inc. (Pasadena, Calif.). Communities seeking to address CSOs have “very much embraced green infrastructure,” Hufnagel said, because of its “multiple benefits,” including improvements related to aesthetics and quality of life. Because green infrastructure features often are highly visible to and valued by the public, programs that incorporate such practices tend to garner more political and community support at the local level than do traditional approaches to improving water quality, she noted. Meanwhile, formerly wary regulators at the federal and state levels are increasingly receptive to the use of green infrastructure to address overflows.

Despite their growing popularity, green infrastructure approaches face significant barriers to implementation. Part of the problem is the relative infancy of green infrastructure technology, and the corresponding lack of robust information regarding performance and implementation time frames, Hufnagel said. As a result, a local government attempting to develop a long-term control plan for addressing CSOs by means of green infrastructure may find it difficult to detail the extent to which overflows will be reduced and the precise time frame for achieving regulatory compliance. “That’s inherently very challenging with a green infrastructure program,” Hufnagel said. To address this limitation, recently approved CSO plans include an expectation that they “will change to some degree over time” as more experience is gained, she noted.

Will liability trump cooperation among stormwater dischargers?

In recent years, many commentators have called on regulators and the regulated community to address stormwater and other issues related to clean water on a watershed basis. However, a recent legal decision has raised the question of whether entities responsible for collecting and conveying stormwater may find it harder to cooperate regionally because of concerns regarding liability for pollutants in runoff. In March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found that the Los Angeles County Flood Control District is responsible for water quality violations associated with pollutants contained in stormwater that it discharges into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers. (Based in San Francisco, the 9th Circuit has appellate jurisdiction over district courts in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.) The decision came as part of a lawsuit originally filed against Los Angeles County in 2008 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC; New York) and Santa Monica (Calif.) Baykeeper.

While not denying the presence of pollutants in the stormwater within its MS4, Los Angeles County had argued that it was not legally liable for the pollutants because it had not generated them, but instead was merely conveying pollutants that originated from upstream sources. Noting that monitoring stations within the district’s MS4 had detected pollutants in excess of permitted levels upstream of where the stormwater entered the rivers, NRDC and Santa Monica Baykeeper argued that the district was responsible for the ensuing water quality violations. In its March 10 decision, the 9th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs, finding it “beyond dispute” that Los Angeles County is discharging pollutants from its MS4 to the two rivers in violation of its NPDES permit.

“The decision means that MS4 permittees are just as responsible for their permit violations as any other polluter,” said Aaron Colangelo, an attorney for NRDC. Although it remains to be seen to what extent the case might affect other MS4 dischargers within the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit, some observers fear that the decision could have negative ramifications for efforts to manage stormwater on a watershed basis. Because the case raises the possibility that MS4 permit holders could “be on the hook” legally for stormwater to which many dischargers have contributed, downstream dischargers may be prompted “to look upstream” in an attempt to share liability, said Shawn Hagerty, a partner at Best Best & Krieger LLP (San Diego). Such actions could prompt holders of MS4 permits to act in ways aimed at limiting their liability, Hagerty said, rather than seeking to cooperate fully in addressing water quality issues.

In late March, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District petitioned the court for a rehearing of the case. In mid-July, the court denied the district’s petition for a rehearing.

— Jay Landers, WE&T

WEF addresses certification, training issues

Summit participants set strategy for helping operators

Water professionals with various backgrounds and expertise gathered at the June 23–24 Operator Certification and Training Summit to help the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) develop an action plan that will advance training and certification, as well as recognition of the operator profession. Participants were tasked with seeking consensus on a variety of operator-related issues to help WEF make final decisions on its action plan.

For several years, WEF has focused on a number of operator initiatives, including committees; a House of Delegates Operator Workgroup; the annual Operations Challenge competition; an updated Wastewater Systems Operations Professionals Certification and Training Position Statement; and operator-focused webcasts, conferences, Manuals of Practice, and online training programs, according to Christine Radke, WEF project manager for technical programs. When WEF learned that some states were considering eliminating wastewater operator certification programs because of budget cuts, it decided to devise a plan specifically for advancing the operator profession, Radke explained. 

The summit hosted approximately 40 attendees representing 20 different WEF Member Associations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators, the Association of Boards of Certification, and the National Rural Water Association.

Determining training and certification requirements

Several summit participants said that the cornerstone of the operator profession is continued training and education.

“We need to have well-trained operators, and I believe we need all of our operators properly certified in order to manage our wastewater treatment plants and systems,” said WEF President Jeanette Brown. “This is a subject that is extremely important … to our entire industry.”

 “This industry faces major, major challenges” in meeting its training needs, said Sheila Frace, director of the Municipal Support Division in the EPA Office of Water. Training becomes more important as operating systems continually become more complex, community demands for additional treatment capacities grow, and seasoned professionals retire and the operator workforce declines, she said.

There are existing training and certification programs in place, but because they are run by states, they vary in their certification requirements, terminology, and designations, as well as in how they are funded.

Summit attendees agreed that there should be a national model presenting minimum standards for operator certification based on core body-of-knowledge criteria. The benefits of such a model would include establishing a professional designation for operators that could be recognized among states, creating common terminology, and supporting reciprocity where all states recognize operators’ licenses.

Attendees also identified the need for a top-level operator’s designation or certification that would give operators a goal to work toward as well as recognition. This designation could help foster a sense of pride and respect for the profession both within and outside of the industry, help operators become more competitive in the industry, and possibly improve operators’ compensation and job security, as well as a treatment facility’s reputation and operation, attendees said.

Developing the standards for both basic and top-level designations could be the “bookends” of the operator professional career path, which eventually could include a number of set milestones for achievement, Radke said.

Protecting certification programs

In the current economy, government funding has been scarce, and as a result, many states that rely on general government funds to support operator training and certification have reduced, eliminated, or outsourced these programs, said Brad Moore, superintendent of the Bangor (Maine) Wastewater Treatment Plant and member of the WEF House of Delegates Operator Workgroup.

However, many states have programs that are completely fee-based, which has allowed the programs to continue operating. For these programs, the responsibility for footing the bill rests with operators, the facility, or a combination of the two. “I think we’re going to continue to see that shift [to fee-based programs], where it’s going to either land on the operators’ shoulders or the utility that the operator works for,” Moore said.

Summit participants generally agreed that the shift to fee-based programs is a good idea, especially when it is clear how money is being used, but they emphasized that fees need to remain reasonable and affordable.

They felt that state-level certification programs are necessary. Further, they said that the industry should pursue federal guidelines with incentives for continuing the programs in the context of the Clean Water Act, similar to drinking water operator certification incentives in the Safe Drinking Water Act. Attendees also agreed that efforts to brand the role of operators — emphasizing their significance in communities and public health — are needed to build and maintain community support for the profession and state-level certification programs.  

Identifying strategies for the future

During the discussion, many attendees identified states with exemplary training and certification programs that could be used as models. Participants agreed on a number of action items to begin the advancement of the operator profession, including

  • gathering information to help identify what a national certification program for entry-level operators should be and the specific elements it should include (Comparisons of state programs, costs, funding, and certification exams would be included. A survey of utilities and operators would help ensure that training would address the needs of everyone involved.);
  • building on WEF’s existing operator resources and using them as starting points for moving forward; and
  • identifying key organizations to partner with after an action plan has been developed. 

Moving forward

From this summit, WEF staff will “see what role WEF can play in actually implementing some of the recommendations,” said Eileen O’Neill, chief technical officer at WEF.

After reviewing recommendations, WEF will begin working on easier and more-accessible action items first, including identifying and reaching out to potential partners and collecting additional information needed to develop the certification bookends, Radke said.

WEF will develop its action plan based on the summit participants’ recommendations. This plan will emphasize the importance of state-level certification, a national model for minimum standards of operator certification, and a high-level designation for operators.

“This was a tremendous meeting,” Brown said at the end of the summit. She explained that the passion and commitment by WEF, the WEF board of trustees, and volunteers will allow the operator focus to continue and develop into long-term strategies that advance the profession.

— Jennifer Fulcher, WE&T

What’s next for Caribbean ecosystems? 

The region’s coral reefs may hold the answer

Fortune-tellers may swear by their tea leaves. But if you really want to predict the future, coral reefs might be a more accurate source for prognostication.

At least that is the finding of Kiho Kim, chair of environmental science at American University (Washington, D.C.).

Kim and his team of researchers are using coral samples to identify and track the sources of the nitrogen pollution that has invaded the coastal ecosystems in the Caribbean over the past 150 years. He hopes his team’s findings — testing and monitoring are ongoing — will provide a glimpse into not only the ecosystems’ past, but also their future, spurring some developing island nations to rethink their current wastewater treatment practices.

What’s nitrogen got to do with it?

Coral reefs thrive in places where there isn’t significant nitrogen in the environment, explained Kim. When nitrogen is introduced, these ecosystems typically undergo a shift, with nitrogen-loving algae taking dominance over the coral population. This phenomenon has been well-documented in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, where colonies of toxic algae periodically grow out of control, producing the “red tides” that discolor water and threaten marine life.

Where’s all the nitrogen coming from? Scientists have long known that it enters coastal waters from two primary sources: fertilizer used in agriculture and wastewater from nearby islands.

What is perhaps less known is that each of these two nitrogen sources leaves its own distinct fingerprint on the coral. Specifically, the nitrogen found in wastewater is heavier than the nitrogen found in fertilizer, a finding scientists can verify using an isotope machine.

The ability to distinguish between these sources is important, Kim said. “You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what’s causing it,” he said. “If we can determine which source is causing the greatest damage, public policy can be shaped to respond to and mitigate it.”

Chemical tests conducted on recent coral samples confirmed what Kim and his American University research team already expected: Fertilizer has been the dominant source of nitrogen pollution in Caribbean coastal ecosystems for the past 50 years.

But that hasn’t always been the case, as the researchers discovered when they analyzed some 300 coral samples collected over the past two centuries and stored at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (Washington, D.C.).

“Up until the 1960s, poor stormwater management and wastewater were primarily to blame for the pollution,” Kim said.

With agriculture on the wane and tourism taking over as these islands’ primary industry, wastewater again is becoming the top source of pollution. And on the small Pacific island of Guam, in particular, it’s about to get worse.

That’s because the U.S. military has announced plans to relocate Marines currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan, to the island. The move is expected to boost Guam’s population, currently about 180,000, by 20% or more. (Originally scheduled to be completed by 2014, the move recently has been delayed as the federal government works through financial and political hurdles.)

In the meantime, preparations are already under way. “The move means more people, more restaurants, more roads, more support services, all of which will strain the island’s wastewater system,” Kim said. The wastewater treatment facilities on Guam already struggle to meet the needs of the current population and are not equipped to remove nitrogen, he said.

Documenting the change

For Kim and his research team, the coming transition presents a unique opportunity to observe and document, in real time, the impact of increased wastewater-derived nitrogen on the health of the coral reefs. He already has collected some baseline data in Guam. In addition to the coral and algae, researchers also will be studying mangroves and sea grasses that are closer to shore.

“Once the move takes place, it shouldn’t take long — probably only a few months — before we begin to see an uptick in heavier nitrogen in our samples,” he said.

Kim said the team intends to use its findings to affect public policy. “We’re not here just to report the facts from the sidelines, but to let the public know the state of the environment and to suggest remedies so they can decide what they want to do about,” he said.

The logical remedy, he said, is to get wastewater treatment on Guam and other developing islands up to high standards.

“The good news is, if you minimize the amount of nitrogen entering the water, the coral will come back,” Kim said. “It’s happened before. It can happen again here.” 

— Mary Bufe, WE&T

©2011 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.