Tag Archives: EPA

MCWRS’s Workshop Discusses the Future of New England’s Rivers

On March 21, MCWRS hosted a free workshop on the future of New England’s rivers at the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission. Coalition members and non-members were invited to learn about these timely topics. Ed Capone, Service Coordination Hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Northeast River Forecast Center (NERFC) presented his work forecasting river flows. The NERFC, one of 13 river forecast centers in the U.S., monitors Massachusetts’s six major river watersheds and works to protect life and property. At NERFC, Mr. Capone and the team calibrate and implement hydrologic and hydraulic models and produce temperature and precipitation forecasts to provide (1) river flow and stage forecasts, (2) guidance on the rainfall needed to produce flash flooding, (3) streamflow predictions, (4) ice jam and dam break support, and (5) water supply and reservoir inflow forecasts.

NOAA studies whole watersheds, and understands that its stakeholders, like the Coalition, are interested in an integrated approach to flooding, water quality, water availability, drought, and climate change, to understand both near- and long-term risks. Mr. Capone reported on observed trends in climate change, such as the increase in amounts and intensity of annual precipitation, warming annual temperatures, and extreme seasonal variations in snowfall that are trending, overall, downward in total amounts. Most notably, intense precipitation events (the heaviest 1%) have increased by 74% in the Northeast, the highest increase in the country. This is reflected in the rise in flooding frequency, especially minor flooding, for smaller watersheds and highly urbanized areas, as well as magnitude. Significant snow storms in the Northeast have also dramatically increased, particularly in the past decade. He explained that the amount of moisture in snow determines the amount of runoff, so a large storm of “dry” snow may have little impact. In terms of Massachusetts’s drought, Mr. Capone explained that drought periods are not uncommon and can happen despite an increase in rainfall.  One of the challenges in managing drought is that the definition can vary by state. He observed that a precipitation deficit may trigger water conservation measures when ground and surface water supplies are actually unaffected.

For Massachusetts and New England, the increase in flooding is related to more slow-moving storms, multiple events in close succession, and a tropical connection. New England’s proximity to Gulf and Atlantic moisture streams and the blocking effects of weather systems to the north play a role, as does even modest changes in ocean and air temperatures that allow the atmosphere to hold more water. The region has been a hotspot for record floods and rainfall over the past 10 years, along with increased yearly rainfall and annual temperatures.

Steven Wolosoff, Senior Environmental Scientist at CDM Smith, discussed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Long Island Sound Nitrogen Reduction Strategy and its impacts in Massachusetts. Mr. Wolosoff explained that the issue is hypoxia, or low dissolved oxygen (DO), in the western portions of Long Island Sound (LIS) in the summer months, which affects bottom dwelling organisms that cannot move away from the area. A 1985 LIS study attributed hypoxia to increases in human wastewater, which led the agency to create a use impairment indicator and hierarchy evaluation system. The 2000 Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study required specific actions, including a 58.5% reduction in nitrogen from in-basin (New York and Connecticut) sources from publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), and created a trading program. It also required that out-of-basin sources from Massachusetts, Vermont, and Canada reduce treatment plant contributions by 25%, nonpoint sources by 10%, and atmospheric deposition by 18%.

Since then, there has been a dramatic reduction of 51.5% in nitrogen contributions from Connecticut and New York WWTPs and the number of days with hypoxia has been reduced. Despite this, in 2015, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment petitioned EPA Regions 1 and 2 to develop a new or amended TMDL, stating that planned actions are not sufficient, climate change will worsen impairments in western LIS, nonpoint source treatment is insufficient, and there is new evidence of embayment impairments. EPA has moved forward with changes, focusing on additional nitrogen removal and addressing embayments Mr. Wolosoff noted that the changes to allowable nitrogen loads amount to a revised TMDL, not a reduction strategy.

Nitrogen sources include atmospheric deposition, wastewater treatment plant effluent, stormwater runoff, septic systems, agricultural runoff, and natural background (or ambient) amounts. EPA’s goal is to reach the natural, pre-colonial levels of nitrogen in LIS, which is not feasible or practical. All out-of-basin sources, including all Massachusetts sources, are already below pre-colonial levels. And, when attenuation is factored in, little benefit is derived from requiring additional controls. He added that the western LIS is most affected by hypoxia, yet Massachusetts’s contribution is to the eastern end. Also, links to local embayments are unclear.  The science indicates that sources in New York and Connecticut immediately adjacent to LIS are the dominant sources of nitrogen and dwarf inputs from other areas of New England. Mr. Wolosoff reviewed lower-cost options for reduction at treatment plants, but noted that stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs) are more cost-effective than changes to WWTPs. The most effective BMPs appear to be yard waste pick up, street sweeping, and catch basin cleaning, which address the largest sources. When monitoring for DO, it’s important to note where samples are taken, as levels vary by depth, and should be conducted before and after measures are implemented. As the Coalition has noted previously, EPA has not engaged with Massachusetts stakeholders on what amounts to a TMDL revision that will significantly impact them.

You can learn about Nitrogen Trading at the Coalition’s 8th Annual Water Resources Strategies Symposium on May 17 in Marlborough. Stay tuned for future free workshops on other timely and regional topics.

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Gov. Baker Re-files Legislation for MassDEP to Assume Authority of NPDES Permit Program

Breaking News! The Massachusetts Coalition for Water Resources Stewardship is excited to announce that Governor Baker has just re-filed legislation to delegate authority of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). Currently, Massachusetts is one of only three states in the nation whose NPDES program is administered federally by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). On March 8, Governor Baker, joined by Energy & Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton and MassDEP Commissioner Marty Suuberg, met with the press and members of the public to announce the re-filing. MCWRS Director Josh Schimmel attended as the spokesperson for the Coalition, and he was joined on the stage by several of our members. To aid the transition, Governor Baker also allocated $1.4 million in the FY2018 state budget proposal for MassDEP staff.

This legislation was originally filed in April 2016, but the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture (JENRA) sent it to study at the end of the last legislative season, effectively killing it. If the legislation is passed, it will be part of a submittal made by MassDEP to EPA Region 1. As previously reported, “MassDEP will be required to demonstrate that it has developed an effective plan for managing the program, that its legal authorities are sufficient to meet federal requirements, and that a plan for funding is in place.”

In Governor Baker’s remarks, he emphasized that giving MassDEP authority for the NPDES program will ensure practical and big picture decisions are made to support holistic, integrated water management. The Commonwealth knows its waters best and will work with communities as partners, so they understand how permits are developed. He also announced that $4.7 million will be included in the budget annually as a dedicated line item to pay for the comprehensive program. “Having MassDEP manage the NPDES program will benefit communities by providing a perspective that is more attune to local issues and is more consistent with state goals and values,” MCWRS President Phil Guerin explained. “A single agency to oversee all water-related regulatory matters also provides greater opportunity for municipalities to successfully implement integrated water resources planning and address multiple regulatory requirements and community infrastructure needs, all while maintaining affordable water and sewer rates.”

The Coalition applauds Governor Charlie Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, Energy & Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton, and MassDEP Commissioner Marty Suuberg for continuing to push for this critically necessary change. Watch the Governor’s video announcement and read the press release for more information.

Stay tuned for future updates on this matter. As in 2016, we will need our members to support this legislation by reaching out to their Senators and Representatives.

Governor Baker Allocates Funding for MassDEP NPDES Staff

On January 25, Governor Baker filed the fiscal year (FY) 2018 state budget proposal, totaling $40.5 billion. In the budget, the Baker-Polito Administration allocated $1.4 million for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to assume delegated authority of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Specifically, the money would fund 12 MassDEP staff members to begin transitioning the program from EPA to MassDEP. This funding is far from the total amount needed to run the NPDES program effectively (estimated at $6 million), but is a good first step to do the groundwork and position MassDEP to take over the program.

However, for MassDEP to officially assume authority, Governor Baker must refile the appropriate legislation. This legislation, formerly Bill H.4254, was originally filed in April 2016. MCWRS President Phil Guerin testified at the May 17, 2016 legislative hearing on behalf of the Coalition urging the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture (JENRA) to pass the legislation. Unfortunately, the bill was sent to study in June 2016 and no action was taken. Local environmental advocacy organizations have historically opposed the transition, citing MassDEP’s limited budget and their concern that the agency might be vulnerable to state politics.

Currently, EPA Region 1 administers the program in Massachusetts, while 47 other states manage their own NPDES permitting. The Coalition has advocated for this transfer since 2007 and in January 2016, we penned a position paper outlining our argument for primacy, with key caveats. As previously reported, this legislation would not remove EPA from the permitting process and MassDEP already has delegated authority for drinking water and air quality permit programs. The Coalition believes that EPA’s one-size-fits-all approach does not consider location-specific environmental, social, and economic factors. MassDEP management of the program would also provide greater opportunity for municipalities to pursue integrated water resources planning. Integrated plans allow communities to address multiple regulatory requirements and infrastructure needs, all while maintaining affordable water and sewer rates.

MCWRS has established a strong working relationship and open lines of communication with MassDEP and will continue to promote municipal interests. The Coalition hopes that MassDEP’s assumption of delegated authority will allow communities to balance environmental protection and fiscal constraints in a cooperative and realistic permitting process. MCWRS intends to support the Governor’s legislation through testimony and meetings with key legislators during the current session. Read the Coalition’s blog for more details on our history of advocating for primacy.

EPA Hosts LIS Nitrogen Reduction Strategy Webinar

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its contractor, Tetra Tech, hosted a webinar about the Long Island Sound Study and its progress on the Nitrogen Reduction Strategy on December 19, 2016. The Nitrogen Reduction Strategy was created to meet a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) to help alleviate hypoxia caused by low levels of dissolved oxygen in the open waters of the Sound. Tetra Tech will use existing hydrodynamic models and “good data” from existing studies to develop nitrogen thresholds and loads for the Sound, and allocation options (Mike Paul, Tetra Tech). The data is sourced from various universities, watershed groups, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and can date back to the 1970s. There does not appear to be a commitment to a new comprehensive sampling program, and how historical data will be screened to determine its accuracy and usefulness is not clear. Utilizing older data, from a multitude of sources, with inconsistent and non-uniform collection techniques as the foundation for science-based rulemaking does not make sense.

EPA repeatedly emphasized that transparency is critical in this process and the importance of collaborating with neighboring states and partners. However, EPA failed to truly embrace the public process, noting that it does not intend to do extensive outreach to the communities in neighboring states affected by the Strategy. Instead, it hopes that state agencies will reach out to the communities, and that other entities will periodically “check in” on the website for program updates. An EPA representative explicitly stated that the Strategy would not be open to public comment because they did not want to “be overwhelmed by having to respond to each comment.” EPA and Tetra Tech said comments may be accepted through an online form for certain technical documents, but that they are not required to respond to them, because it is not a rulemaking process. According to an EPA representative, a public meeting was held in Massachusetts explaining the Study and Strategy in May and that periodic webinars would inform stakeholders on progress. The level of outreach EPA intends to do to notify communities of the webinars is unclear. So far, for the most part, the process has been under the radar.

Becky Weidman of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) is one of the only Massachusetts representatives on any of the 12 different advising committees. The Science and Technical Advisory Committee guiding the Study and developing the criteria is made up of a variety of universities, colleges, environmental groups, and government agencies from Connecticut and New York. Massachusetts municipalities and utilities have no significant representation on any committees. MCWRS acknowledges EPA’s efforts to inform the public and focus efforts on LIS communities. However, Massachusetts communities should also be actively and directly involved in the planning process, since they will ultimately be issued National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permits reflecting the results of the study. Retrofitting wastewater treatment plants to meet stringent nitrogen limits can exceed hundreds of millions of dollars. When science-based studies are utilized to develop criteria for revised TMDLs and for setting nutrient limits in NPDES permits, it sounds like rulemaking, which requires a prescribed public comment period and process. ‘Hoping’ that State partners will update permittees and communities about the Study is disingenuous and subverts the spirit of the rulemaking process. Not surprisingly, the webinar reemphasized a well-known issue in the tenuous relationship between EPA and municipalities/utilities; EPA touts public involvement, working with communities, and relying on ‘good’ science, but often fails to put its words into action.

Help MCWRS Support MassDEP’s Authorization for NPDES Program Management by June 30!

This week, MCWRS submitted a comment letter to the Co-Chairs of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture (JENRA) expressing our support of Bill H.4254 – An Act to enable the Commonwealth’s administration of the Massachusetts Pollution Discharge Elimination System. This legislation would begin the process to have the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) seek delegation of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting authority for the Commonwealth. Currently, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers the program in Massachusetts, while 46 (soon to be 47) other states manage their own NPDES permitting. We have been tracking this legislation and advocating for primacy in recent blog posts and since our 2007 White Paper. Our letter includes references to our Primacy Position Paper and testimony from MCWRS President and Chairman, Phil Guerin, at the May 17 legislative hearing.

As of yesterday morning, JENRA has filed an extension order with a new reporting date of Thursday, June 30. That means there’s still time for all MCWRS members and other supporters of Bill H.4254 to fill in the blanks in this template letter and submit it to the JENRA Committee Co-Chairs and their Representatives or Senators! Find contact information, including email addresses, for your legislators and the JENRA Committee members.

Both the Coalition’s and the template letters highlight some key points we hope our elected officials consider before they cast their votes:

  • Voting to delegate authority to MassDEP does not remove EPA from the permit process.
  • MassDEP already has delegated authority for drinking water, air quality, and other programs that it is managing with great success.
  • EPA’s one-size-fits-all approach to permitting does not consider location-specific environmental, social, and economic factors, whereas MassDEP is more familiar and in tune with the various regions, watersheds, and ecosystems in Massachusetts. Its water quality standards would be more site-specific and based on current scientific knowledge.
  • MassDEP management of the program would provide greater opportunity for municipalities to successfully implement integrated water resources planning and address multiple regulatory requirements and community infrastructure needs, all while maintaining affordable water and sewer rates.
  • Having MassDEP manage the program would ensure consistency with other state-run environmental initiatives.
  • MassDEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg has identified the resources needed to successfully run the NPDES program and has committed $4.7 million annually to do so.
  • MassDEP will manage NPDES permitting much more effectively and efficiently and produce a balanced program that protects the environment in an economically sustainable way.

We encourage our members to share a copy of their comments. This is a critically important opportunity for MCWRS to demonstrate our strength in numbers and leverage our impact!

MassDEP Seeks to Take Over NPDES Permit Program from EPA

It’s finally happened! The Massachusetts Coalition for Water Resources Stewardship (MCWRS) is thrilled to announce that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) plans to take over responsibility for administering the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit program from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 1. Everyone benefits from clean water, and the Coalition is excited to share that Governor Baker intends to fund administration of the program through the State budget! Massachusetts is one of only three states in the nation that does not manage its NPDES program.

The Coalition has been advocating for quite some time for this change. Board members have discussed with Administration staff the details of how the program could best be administered to protect both the environment and communities’ interests. In fact, MCWRS founding member, Tom Walsh (formerly of the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District), sits on MassDEP’s NPDES primacy advisory committee.

“Having MassDEP manage the NPDES program will benefit communities by providing a perspective that is more attune to local issues and is more consistent with state goals and values,” MCWRS President Phil Guerin explained. “A single agency to oversee all water-related regulatory matters also provides greater opportunity for municipalities to successfully implement integrated water resources planning and address multiple regulatory requirements and community infrastructure needs, all while maintaining affordable water and sewer rates.”

On April 29, Governor Baker filed the legislation, An Act to Enable the Commonwealth’s Administration of the Massachusetts Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, that if passed, will be part of a submittal made by MassDEP to EPA Region 1. “As part of its application, MassDEP will be required to demonstrate that it has developed an effective plan for managing the NPDES program, that its legal authorities are sufficient to meet federal requirements and that a plan for funding is in place.  While the formal submission cannot be made until the Baker-Polito Administration’s proposal receives legislative approval, MassDEP is continuing to consult with EPA on delegation requirements and will develop other elements of the plan for submittal.”

The Coalition applauds Governor Charlie Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, Energy & Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton, and MassDEP Commissioner Marty Suuberg for recognizing the critical need for this change. The full press release is available on the Governor’s website: http://1.usa.gov/23dWmR0

In Our Opinion: Flint’s Lead Issue Spotlights National Reality

The news story of Flint, Michigan’s lead contamination spotlights a number of issues that impact MCWRS members and municipalities across the nation. The facts behind the Flint situation are hard to come by. What is clear, however, is that a failure by one water utility to meet its obligations to provide safe drinking water to its customers can taint the entire water supply profession. The media activity surrounding Flint has muddied the waters for us all and raises the specter that water supply professionals cannot be trusted and that public officials put cost savings above public health.

Certainly, Flint officials did a disservice to their water customers by not explaining what was going on. It appears they have a corrosion control problem that was not addressed when they decided to switch to a different water source. Without a doubt, there are also water infrastructure issues in Flint, namely lead services that need to be more appropriately dealt with. These same issues potentially impact water utilities across the nation. But, let’s rise above the current fray in Flint and always remember how costs affect communities’ abilities to keep pace with the demands of new regulations, let alone ongoing maintenance.

As the New York Times reported, “the country has invested far too little in its public works, as governments at all levels have become obsessed with cutting spending.” While the call for more federal and state financial assistance is proper and necessary, the demand for more regulation is exactly the opposite of what is needed. One of the reasons that municipalities are looking to cut costs is the enormous and never-ending regulatory burden. Some regulations and permit conditions are necessary to protect public health or to make meaningful environmental improvements. But today, far too many produce little or no benefit and create costs that are astronomical. In 2012, the MA Water Infrastructure Finance Commission’s report identified a $21.4 billion funding gap over the next 20 years for water and wastewater systems, as cited in this interesting Boston Globe opinion piece.

Should a community spend $120 million on wastewater treatment plant upgrades in order to reduce its phosphorus level from 0.2 mg/l to 0.1 mg/l when the result of the investment is not certain to make appreciable environmental improvements? Or, should it spend an equivalent sum replacing old sewer and water pipes whose imminent failure may cause environmental or public health catastrophes? That is the dilemma facing communities because they do not and will not have the resources to do both!

The Coalition urges federal and state governments to heed the lessons of Flint and provide more funding for water infrastructure to communities and their ratepayers and to restructure regulations and permits so that local resources can be expended on the most critical local priorities. What are your thoughts on lead contamination in Flint? Let us know what you think by emailing info@mcwrs.org.