August 2006, Vol. 18, No.8

Living on the Edge


As coastal development continues to surge, how will we address water quality impacts?

Development in U.S. coastal areas is surging. Half of the population, approximately 110 million people, lives on the water-rimmed edge, which comprises 17% of total U.S. land area. Continued growth on coastal lands poses major challenges for protecting and managing the health of U.S. coastal water quality and important coastal resources.


“While direct causes of environmental quality problems are often difficult to document, evidence is mounting that many are the result of general coastal development patterns. ... Fundamental changes are occurring in the way natural systems work and look.”

— 50 Years of Population Change Along the Nation’s Coasts: 1960–2010
National Ocean Service, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Development in U.S. coastal areas is surging. Half of the population, approximately 110 million people, lives on the water-rimmed edge, which comprises 17% of total U.S. land area. According to projections published by the National Ocean Service, a branch of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in its 50 Years of Population Change Along the Nation’s Coasts: 1960–2010, the U.S. coastal population is expected to increase by 60%, to 127 million people, by 2010. Continued growth on coastal lands poses major challenges for protecting and managing the health of U.S. coastal water quality and important coastal resources.

All along the perimeter of the United States, estuaries suffer eutrophication, resulting in shellfish bed closures, fish kills, habitat loss, human health advisories, and more. According to the National Ocean Service’s 1999 National Estuarine Eutrophication Assessment (accessible at, “eutrophic conditions worsened in 48 estuaries and improved in 18” since NOAA began surveying in the 1970s. Pressworthy contributing causes include urban and agricultural runoff, sewer overflows, and atmospheric nitrogen. However, increases in effluent discharges and septic system wastes that result from population growth and development — which includes housing, transportation, and industry — also increase nutrient loads to the estuaries in a meaningful way. NOAA’s 1999 assessment — the result of 7 years of monitoring and study and the founding document of estuarine eutrophication status at the highest federal management levels — found that “population growth and related activities, such as various agricultural practices, wastewater treatment plants, urban runoff, and the burning of fossil fuels, have increased nutrient inputs by many times the levels that occur naturally.” The assessment concluded that “a high level of human influence is associated with 36 of the 44 estuaries (82%) with a high expression of eutrophic conditions.”

Population growth and development are difficult issues to address directly because they involve economics and politics. However, the documented extent of these impacts to the coastal United States warrants careful re-examination. As coastal development continues at the heated pace it has in the past half-century, our best efforts to mitigate water pollution — the Clean Water Act (CWA) and Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), to name two — are complicated by additional waste coming from new housing units, increased runoff from expanded transportation, and surplus quantities of atmospheric nitrogen created by the influx of tourism and commuter vehicles that flood U.S. coasts. Indeed, NOAA’s May 2006 National Estuarine Eutrophication Workshop discussed how degradation is growing worse in inland waters and coastal and marine environments. While great progress has been made in assessing the scope of the problem, according to NOAA’s workshop materials, little progress has been made in solving it.

The Baseline Keeps Changing
Coastal development impacts are seen within the composition of U.S. estuaries. How data gleaned from various estuary monitoring efforts are evaluated is a key factor in determining how we address current impacts and prevent those of the future. According to Daniel Basta, director of NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries Program, the baseline for defining a natural system keeps changing over time. “We begin to lose track of what a healthy system is,” he said. “Thus, we accept a lower level of quality because we do the best we can.”

Basta, who also contributed to the authoring committee of the 1993 U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Managing Wastewater in Coastal Urban Areas, noted, “The paradigm goes this way: Our ability to negatively affect an estuary is rapidly increasing over time. What we used to do in 50 years, we now do in 5.”

Everyday Tradeoffs
While population density is part of the equation, a second key factor is the economics of the coast. According to Jeff Adkins, an economist and social scientist with NOAA’s National Economics Program, population is not the sole indicator of coastal development, because other forces are associated with land use. “There is a lot more pressure on these coastal resources than population alone, and the point is that there is some impact by people who don’t live there — because there’s land use associated with economic activities,” he said. Because tourism is the largest ocean economy, housing and commercial development also must be considered.

A third factor is that populations in coastal communities tend to skyrocket seasonally, and this is not reflected in the population projections, Adkins noted. (To develop its population report, NOAA compared data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Bureau of the Census, and private economic forecasting firms.) These factors include seasonal housing, which replaces crucial habitat and wetlands; transportation, which increases paved surfaces; and industry, which includes many forms of commercial development. “All of these factors tend to exacerbate each other,” Adkins said. Further, commercial uses of large tracts of land — such as department stores with sizeable parking lots — are developed to accommodate the seasonal influx of tourists that boost the local economy. While development burdens local environments, growth brings job opportunities, improves regional infrastructure, increases tax revenues that enhance government services and education, and offers prosperity. “We make these kinds of tradeoffs every day,” Adkins said.

Coastal Policy and Management
The solution is “not building more wastewater treatment plants but changing behaviors,” according to Ralph Cantral, chief of the National Policy and Evaluation Division of NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. “It’s not funding. It’s not regulations.” A regulatory program that can keep up with coastal development has not yet been established, he noted.

“Most innovative policy is happening at the state level,” Cantral said, and that makes sense because CWA and CZMA leave a lot up to the states. “It’s their task to implement,” he added.

The true disconnect, Cantral suggested, could be that these regulatory programs lack a code of conduct — for one thing, coastal zone management is a voluntary partnership. The CZMA discusses what states ought to address. And although the act includes mandatory components that states must maintain to continue to receive CZMA funding, “decision-making is becoming extraordinarily complex,” Basta said.
“The bottom line is we are fundamentally missing something ... [and] science just isn’t keeping up,” Basta said, noting that decision-makers must look at each estuary separately. The extent to which local coastal decision-makers are “plugged in” to the environmental monitoring community, as well as to the knowledge and talent of the waste management industry, is an open question.

Sources of Impact
For any particular estuary, many factors — such as soil hydrology, rainfall, flushing, and more — contribute to the gravity and extent of eutrophication. Point and nonpoint source pollution — including wastewater treatment, septics, and package treatment facilities — are particularly thorny matters to address in coastal regions. “The vast majority of coastal areas of the country do not have the resources to develop an engineering solution,” Cantral said.

Nonpoint source pollution is particularly difficult to address with development, as the potential for runoff rises with increased construction of impervious surfaces. Because housing and land prices are much higher in coastal areas, many people who work on the coast commute from homes that are further inland, Adkins said.

According to Keelin Kuipers, program manager for NOAA’s Coastal Storms Program, not having sewer systems impeded development in the past, but today, new development often means a lot more septic tanks in the ground — provided that they pass local percolation requirements. And because septic tanks do not remove nitrogen, they have an added effect on coastal groundwater, which eventually reaches estuaries and negatively affects groundwater sources of drinking water supplies.

In popular coastal areas, the best locations — and those with robust soils — already have been developed. When a new development’s soils do not meet percolation requirements, and where sewers are not available, developers may opt for package treatment facilities. Cantral noted that it is important to ensure that these privately owned treatment plants are operating effectively. While state regulations permit and oversee such facilities, “there have been problems in the past,” he said.

Development and Standards
A lot of development is completed only to a minimum standard, according to Cantral. Constructing on sites of repetitive loss, building new housing in flood zones, and adding a community of septic tanks in an area already affected by nitrates are only a few examples of what is happening on the local level. “The first issue that hasn’t been addressed very well is, Are some places just not appropriate for development?” Cantral said. During the next few decades, if populations increase and estuaries continue to struggle against eutrophication, we will continue to be faced with this question.

“We need to encourage innovation,” Cantral said. “We need to have incentives for people who go above the standard.” 

Predicting Pollution With N-SPECT

The NPS Pollution and Erosion Comparison Tool (N-SPECT), a geographic information system-based tool developed by the Remote Sensing Program of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Services Center (CSC), addresses the connection between water quality and development. Designed to run on a laptop computer, N-SPECT uses land cover data to evaluate erosion and nonpoint source pollution, and can predict likely future water quality impacts from development. According to Jamie Carter, a CSC spatial analyst, “It’s very easy to set up a development scenario.”

Programmed to use nationally available data sets, the tool was created to maximize the use of existing data to assist in regional decision-making and coastal resources management. N-SPECT is available at no cost but requires an intermediate user of ArcGIS, another geographic information system-based tool. N-SPECT evaluates pollutant loading in any location, and CSC is experimenting with spatial scales to determine which will be the most optimum. Currently, N-SPECT is best suited for use on a watershed scale, but future improvements may allow plotting development scenarios and predicting pollutant loads at the subwatershed level. CSC also is exploring how to use higher-resolution data to address smaller scales, such as subdivisions.

To use N-SPECT, a baseline environment first must be established using the best available data for a particular region. Next, a planned development scenario is plotted and calculated. The tool provides “a very good idea what the effects of implementing that development on sediments, pollutants, and runoff are,” Carter said.

Input includes data on soils, precipitation, land cover, and topography, as well as pollutant load coefficients for nitrogen, phosphorus, lead, and total suspended solids. N-SPECT is best used when coefficients are developed from local in situ water quality data; however, a standard set of coefficients developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its BASINS tool also may be used to calculate more general pollutant load predictions in N-SPECT. In addition, unique coefficients can be developed. CSC is working with the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) in Alabama to develop fecal coliform coefficients for use in running N-SPECT development scenarios for the Weeks Bay watershed.

While the tool doesn’t offer precise numbers, N-SPECT is unique in the way it applies algorithms to pixels. The program runs three algorithms — calculating sediment transport, water runoff, and pollutant runoff. It then establishes a common data structure that may be applied to other data modeling programs in the future. Caveats exist for using N-SPECT: The tool does not address groundwater, model snowmelt or landslide effects, or consider any type of atmospheric deposition, including atmospheric nitrogen. However, it’s a “screening tool” and an effective one, Carter said.

In the future, N-SPECT may be able to help empower the most local decision-makers with the predictive knowledge they need to make the most informed development decisions. “That is the end goal,” Carter said.

CSC performs a range of data collection and works with other agencies to build a comprehensive set of digital data. “The grand vision is a digital coast,” said Steve Raber, CSC’s remote sensing group program manager. In addition to the Weeks Bay NERR in Alabama, CSC is using N-SPECT in working with Horry County, S.C., and several groups in Hawaii to understand better how proposed development will affect pollutant loading in these areas.

N-SPECT may be downloaded at

Upcoming presentations and training sessions will be held at the annual conference of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (Park Ridge, Ill.) in Vancouver, British Columbia, scheduled for Sept. 26 to 29; and at the Cinco de NEMO conference in Middletown, Conn., on Oct. 17. For more information about these sessions, contact Carter at

Andrea S. Bistany, WE&T

About This Series
This is the first of a two-part series on the impact of coastal development on water quality. Part 2 of this series (September issue) will examine how decisions are made on the local level, how to encourage innovation, and how to form better connections between the environmental monitoring community and decision-makers.

This is the first of a two-part series on the impact of coastal development on water quality. Part 2 of this series (September issue) will examine how decisions are made on the local level, how to encourage innovation, and how to form better connections between the environmental monitoring community and decision-makers.

Water Associations Collaborate With U.S. EPA on Utility Management


Six associations representing the U.S. water and wastewater industries signed a statement of intent on May 2 to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to form a coalition to foster better utility management practices. While each association has programs and services related to utility management, this is the first time that such a broad group of organizations has formally agreed to cooperate with each other and EPA on this topic.

The executive directors of the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.), American Public Works Association (Kansas City, Mo.), Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA; Washington, D.C.), American Water Works Association (Denver), National Association of Clean Water Agencies (Washington, D.C.), and National Association of Water Companies (Washington, D.C.), signed the agreement with Benjamin Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for Water.

“Many water utilities employ exemplary management practices — meeting high levels of efficiency, cost of operation, and quality of service while maintaining their infrastructure and ensuring future water supplies, but this level of performance is not consistent across the industry,” said Diane VanDe Hei, AMWA executive director. “This collaboration allows us to encourage the use of best management practices at systems throughout the nation.”

The water and wastewater infrastructure funding gap, estimated at between $485 billion and $896 billion, prompted the organizations to form the coalition, according to Eileen O’Neill, WEF chief technical officer. EPA and leading water associations — individually and collectively — have been considering how to address this issue, she noted. “While we might not agree on every single detail of how this problem should be tackled, we do agree on many areas, including some fundamental principles, such as the fact that sound management is an important component of ensuring that the best value is obtained for every dollar invested,” she said.

“Our existing network of treatment facilities, distribution, and collection systems are significant public assets worth an estimated $1 trillion,” said Bill Bertera, WEF executive director. “Huge additional investments and adoption of new management practices will be needed over the next generation in order to maintain these aging assets and the gains we have made in public health and environmental protection. Legislators, ratepayers, and individual citizens need to know that utility managers are acting as good stewards of these assets if they are going to support this vital investment.”

During the next 12 months, the water associations and EPA will identify the attributes of effectively managed utilities, identify methods for measuring utilities’ progress toward goals, and develop a strategy to promote more widespread adoption of effective management practices across the water sector.
“We plan to advance understanding and adoption of world-class management practices through a more cohesive approach,” O’Neill said. “Further, through collective outreach, we hope to transfer these practices to a wider cross-section of utilities, including those not active in our organizations.”

For example, asset management and environmental management systems are both significant management tools, and this project should help clarify their complementary roles in utility performance improvement programs, O’Neill said. The project will help to inventory the resources that each of the signatory organizations has regarding these two important tools, identify resource gaps, and facilitate a collaborative approach to developing new resources, she explained.

The output of the agreement will be the elements of a national strategy to advance effective utility management, O’Neill said. “We expect that this strategy will include such elements as management tools and programs, development of educational resources, and options to reduce barriers and provide incentives to promote more widespread adoption of effective management practices across the water sector,” she noted.

To administer the project, each association appointed two utility managers from its membership, as well as several at-large representatives chosen to provide additional perspectives. WEF’s two utility appointees are Billy Turner, president of Columbus (Ga.) Water Works, and John Cook, chief operating officer of the Charleston (S.C.) Water System. A complete roster of steering committee members may be found below.

At press time, the first meeting of the steering committee was tentatively scheduled for July 6–7.

Steve Spicer, WE&T

National Strategy to Advance Effective Utility Management Steering Committee

  • David Brosman, chief operating officer, El Paso (Texas) Water Utilities Public Service Board
  • John B. Cook, chief executive officer, Charleston (S.C.) Water System
  • Stephen J. Densberger, president, Pennichuck Water Service Co. (Merrimack, N.H.)
  • JC Goldman Jr., president and chief operating officer, contract services for United Water (Indianapolis)
  • Dan Hartman, director of public works, City of Golden (Colo.)
  • Scott A. Haskins, deputy director, Seattle (Wash.) Public Utilities
  • Mary Lappin, assistant director of plant and facilities, Kansas City (Mo.) Water Department
  • Ed McCormick, manager of support services, East Bay Municipal Utility District (Oakland, Calif.
  • Patricia Mulroy, general manager, Las Vegas (N.V.) Valley Water District
  • Howard M. Neukrug, director, Office of Watersheds for Philadelphia (Penn.) Water
  • Dave Rager, director, Greater Cincinnati (Ohio) Water Works
  • Brian L. Ramaley, director, Newport News (Va.) Waterworks
  • Joseph J. Superneau, executive director, Springfield (Mass.) Water and Sewer Commission
  • Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, assistant public works director, City of Albany (Ore.) Department of Public Works
  • Billy G. Turner, president of the Columbus (Ga.) Water Works
  • John Young, chief operating officer of American Water (Voorhees, N.J.)