Welcome to the June 2011 edition of NEIWPCC’s email newsletter, iWR. As always, please let us know what you think!
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Controlling Highway Runoff
While America’s highways play an indispensable role in the nation’s economy and everyday life, they also provide an amazingly efficient pathway for pollutants to enter the water environment. Oil; road salt; leaks of fluids such as antifreeze; material from aging tires, brakes, and engine parts—it all collects on heavily traveled highway surfaces, and does not stay there. One good rain and the ensuing stormwater can carry the contaminants into nearby lakes, rivers, and streams, with undeniable impacts on water quality. The list of typical pollutants found in runoff from highways is extensive, and includes heavy metals such as cadmium, manganese, and nickel, all of which can be toxic to humans and aquatic life. In winter, the runoff also contains potentially harmful deicing chemicals, and at any time of year, the stormwater can carry environmentally destructive particulates from pavement wear and road maintenance.
In Washington, a new effort has been launched to address this issue. In May, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) filed a bill called the “Safe Treatment of Polluted Stormwater Runoff Act (or STOPS Runoff), which would require the Department of Transportation, in consultation with EPA, to develop standards for maintaining or restoring the preexisting hydrology at highway construction sites. The standards would apply to new highways being built with federal funds as well as to major highway rehabilitation projects. The bill encourages the use of natural features and existing terrain to control and treat stormwater runoff, but would allow offsite stormwater treatment or participation in an established water quality mitigation program if onsite treatment is infeasible due to site constraints.
In a press release, Cardin said, “Highways built with federal funds already are required to meet design standards for safety and structural quality. It’s time we implemented an environmental design standard for highways that protect water quality as well.” At NEIWPCC, we could not agree more.
“This legislation is a sign that we are moving forward nationally to address stormwater pollution,” said NEIWPCC Executive Director Ron Poltak. “For a long time, NEIWPCC and our partners in the states have striven to get the transportation and farm bills to reflect water quality needs, because the work covered by the bills contributes so much to water quality problems. The fact is that highways have historically been built with an absence of thought regarding where the polluted runoff ends up. This bill would change that, and it’s been a long time coming.”
The prospects for passage of the bill by Congress are uncertain, though a Cardin spokeswoman told the Environment and Energy Daily news service that the senator’s staff is trying to get the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on which Cardin serves, to incorporate the legislation into a larger surface transportation bill. The Environment and Public Works Committee includes three senators from NEIWPCC’s member states: Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), all of whom accept comments on legislation through their websites.
Center of Attention: A Talk With EPA’s Ann Codrington
As acting director of the Drinking Water Protection Division of U.S. EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, Ann Codrington has been intricately involved in the government’s response to several high-profile environmental issues, including the controversy over the natural gas-extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing. On March 2, we had a chance to speak with Codrington during her visit to NEIWPCC’s Lowell offices to attend a meeting of our Drinking Water Administrators Workgroup. What follows is an abbreviated, edited transcript of our conversation.
iWR: It’s hard to remember a time like this, when so many drinking water topics have been in the headlines. How are you holding up? Is it a lot to manage?
Codrington: That’s an understatement. It is tremendously busy. There just seems to be more and more interest in drinking water. When I was in the [Drinking Water Administrators Workgroup] meeting, a representative from one of the states told about how they heard from their hairdresser that hydraulic fracturing was something that they should be concerned about. There isn’t really much Marcellus Shale [natural gas extraction] activity happening in the very northern parts of the Northeast, but people know what it is. And it’s because you’re seeing it on TV on 60 Minutes, and you’re seeing it in the newspapers, and in the movies. The media teaches people that there are certain issues related to drinking water that they need to be paying attention to. Sometimes the information leaves something to be desired in terms of its factual accuracy. One of the things that I spend a lot of my time doing is explaining to people the risks and advantages of a particular practice and how it might affect drinking water sources so they can make more informed decisions.
iWR: Among NEIWPCC’s member states, New York is the only one where hydraulic fracturing is practiced. Let’s say I’m a New York State resident in an area where fracturing is going on, and I’m concerned about its impact on groundwater. How can you reassure me that my drinking water is safe?
Codrington: One of the things that I tell people is that there is a lot of misinformation out there about the protections that are provided at the federal level related to shale gas production and hydraulic fracturing. I remember being at a conference not long ago and the person who spoke before me said that shale gas production is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and most other environmental laws. While that’s partially true, it’s not completely true. We need to be very clear about the fact that there are protections out there related to drinking water, and those include protections under the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. In addition, states have been beefing up their regulations related to shale gas, some more quickly and more substantially than others. And I think they’re on the right track. There have been a lot of advances in [fracturing] technology and the pace of exploration has been tremendous. So, there is still a lot to learn and still a lot of improvement that we can make in our approaches to addressing this kind of activity.
But I think the best advice that I can give to someone who cares about their drinking water is to stay involved and ask questions, to go to public meetings when they’re being held and voice their opinions. We all need to be able to weigh the pros and cons of any activity and decide for ourselves what it is that we want in our communities.
iWR: Another hot drinking water issue lately has been hexavalent chromium, a human carcinogen when inhaled through the air. Chromium-6, as it’s better known, has been the subject of a lot of talk in Washington, due to the study showing water systems in many cities having levels of it that some find disturbing. EPA is doing a risk assessment that is due out by the end of the year. But don’t we have enough evidence? Shouldn’t we act now to crack down on its presence in water?
Codrington: I think we don’t have enough information, and that’s why EPA is working to assess the current information about relative sources and contributions and risks. There is more work that we need to do. Once we have all the risk information that we think we need, we will make a determination as to whether the regulations need to be revised. But that’s not something you want to do immediately. You want to have the appropriate information in order to make that decision.
iWR: Under President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund would be cut by $397 million. While the president’s proposal is just the first volley in a long budget process, does that proposed cut concern you?
Codrington: The president’s budget takes into account that we need to live within our means. We realize that something has to give, something has to be cut. We don’t envision that these cuts are so significant that they compromise the ability for us to do our jobs. That’s what we are working to clarify for future budget discussions—that is, where are the impacts of a cut, where is the point that we have to stop doing certain things, and what are those things that are critical to providing safe drinking water. There are some cuts that we think we can sustain and still be able to provide safe drinking water, and there are other things we know that if they are cut, they do have an impact. So those are the ones we are making sure we preserve.
iWR: You’ve just sat in on a meeting of NEIWPCC’s Drinking Water Administrators Workgroup. What’s your sense of the job they’re doing?
Codrington: I’ve been impressed. You would think that in the midst of the budget situations that we’ve been hearing about in the press that people would be pretty dire. However, there’s a lot of positivity among the group. There is a sense that, yes, we are dealing with a declining budget, but there is still important work for us to do and we are going to be trying to do as much of it as we can. I’ve been very impressed with the amount of sharing of information, and with the technical assistance that people are offering to each other across state lines. I think that’s the way we can survive these times—by realizing that by leveraging our funding and getting our heads together, we get a lot more done than if we each go out on our own. I saw a lot of that happening, and I was really glad to see that.
iWR: Finally, what inspired you to visit us today and sit in on the workgroup meeting? Obviously, we’re thrilled to have you here.
Codrington: Well, thank you. I think that it’s really important to get out and visit with the states and understand what they’re experiencing. Their experiences are different than what happens at the headquarters level. It’s much more local, much more real in that they have to deal with systems that are either in or not in compliance, and they have on-the-ground problems that they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. When you don’t do that type of daily system issue problem-solving, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of how the actions that we take at a headquarters level might impact states. So this gives me a very good chance to see what the concerns are at the state level, how those concerns are being addressed, and what the states would like the federal government and EPA headquarters to do to help in addressing these problems.
High Waters, Heavy Load
To grasp the full extent of a problem, sometimes it helps to get a bird’s-eye view. For two days in late April, NEIWPCC’s Bill Howland flew over Lake Champlain in a rented plane to see the impact of the heavy rain and snowmelt that brought the lake’s water levels to record highs this spring. What Howland saw and captured in photographs is remarkably powerful evidence of the severity of the situation. The photos by Howland, program manager of the Lake Champlain Basin Program, show massive plumes of suspended sediments flowing into the lake from the many rivers that discharge into it. The photos also reveal extensive shoreline erosion underway as a result of the lake’s wave action, which is higher than at any time in more than a century. (In the photo at left, sediment plumes from the Lamoille River, the Winooski River, and shoreline erosion on South Hero mix in the lake and drift south; the photo at right shows a sediment plume from the La Platte River dispersing near Shelburne Point, Vt.)
The result of all the inflow is a sediment load to the lake that is probably unprecedented—and hardly innocuous. The impact to water quality is expected to be significant, with the inflow of nutrients—nitrogen and phosphorus—having the potential to exacerbate the lake’s already considerable problem with algae blooms. This disturbing prospect, and Howland’s extraordinary photographs, received considerable media coverage in the Lake Champlain area. Among those covering the story was North Country Public Radio, which conducted an interview with Howland, transcribed below, that aired on May 5.
Howland: The flooding occurred at a time when the ground was newly thawed and soft. Fields have not been planted yet although they may well have manure on them from last fall or from the spring. And so it happened that we have had a lot of flooding when the landscape is at its most vulnerable. But there’s one more aspect of the problems shown in the photographs, and that is that the lake level, by rising a full two feet above its usual high, has meant that the shoreline of the lake itself is eroding at an unprecedented rate. So we have plumes from both sources, great big plumes of sediment that are visible from the air.
Brian Mann, NCPR: Let me ask about what’s in those plumes. We’ve had concerns for years now about what runs off the land in New York and Vermont into the lake. And when we have an event like this, where so much is coming out, are we looking at a surge of phosphorus and other problematic things? I know also many sewage treatment plants along the lakeshore have been flooded or impacted. Are you worried that with just dirt and particulates, there are also chemicals and things getting into the lake?
Howland: That is exactly a problem that we’re very interested in. The sediments themselves have an ecological impact, no doubt. However, on the surface of each little particle, you would find nutrients have attached themselves. So when the sediments go out, they carry nutrients with them. In addition, while the amount of discharge is made more visible by the sediments, there are a lot of dissolved nutrients as well, dissolved phosphorus and nitrogen.
Mann: This is the time of year when the eggs are being laid, the nests are being built, by everything from frogs along the shoreline to geese and waterfowl. When you see that much material going into the lake, is this something that animals and fish are able to deal with or do you think there’s the potential for real impacts there?
Howland: Undoubtedly, it will have some impact. I don’t have a way to quantify or characterize that yet, so I would hesitate to say that that’s a major problem at this time. I know it’s the kind of activity that happens every year normally anyway, it’s just that we have an enormous amount of it going on. And so we’ll have to wait and see.
Mann: Anything else about this discharge, this amount of sediment that I haven’t asked about and that you think is noteworthy?
Howland: We’re seeing increased precipitation in the Northeast, which is exactly what virtually all of the climate change models have been predicting. Already, in the patterns of rainfall over the last 15 years, we’ve seen increases that give us some concern. And the more precipitation we have, generally the more nutrients flow into the lake. So this is a problem, and we have to adapt our management response to this trend of greater precipitation. One-hundred year floods might now be more than once in our lifetime, maybe several times. So we have to redefine what a 100-year flood is. There’s a lot to do to adapt to these changes in precipitation.
To listen to the interview, visit NCPR’s archive. To view an online gallery of Howland’s photographs, visit the Lake Champlain Basin Program website. The images have been reduced from the high-resolution originals, which are available upon request from the LCBP.
Transition at the Top
The latest list of NEIWPCC Officers and Commissioners includes several changes, including one at the very top. Peter LaFlamme (seen at left), director of the Water Quality Division of Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation, is serving as our acting chair, presiding over the meetings of our full Commission and Executive Committee. LaFlamme is a familiar presence, having served on the Commission since 2009 as the representative of VT DEC’s Commissioner, and we are delighted to have him at the helm. LaFlamme is filling out the NEIWPCC chair term of Andrew Fisk, who left his position as director of Maine DEP’s Bureau of Land and Water Quality after the January 2011 change in administrations in Augusta. At NEIWPCC’s Commission meeting in May, NEIWPCC Executive Director Ron Poltak and others paid tribute to the many years of service provided to the Commission by Fisk (at left in photo at right, with Poltak at the May meeting). Fisk is now executive director at the Connecticut River Watershed Council.
We are also welcoming two new additions to the table at Commission meetings. Teco Brown is the new representative of Maine DEP’s Commissioner, after having taken over from Fisk as director of Maine’s Bureau of Land and Water Quality. And Ann Lowery, acting assistant commissioner for MassDEP’s Bureau of Resource Protection, has now joined Rick Dunn in representing MassDEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell at NEIWPCC meetings. We look forward to working closely with both Brown and Lowery, who like all our Commissioners and representatives, provide the experience and expertise that supports and enhances our ability to meet the needs of our member states.
NEIWPCC recently coordinated two much-anticipated conferences—the 2011 Northeast Water Science Forum and the 2011 Nonpoint Source Pollution Conference—and both events more than met the high expectations. At the Northeast Water Science Forum in Portland, Maine, April 27-29, scientists, regulators, water and wastewater professionals, and other technical experts gathered to disseminate and evaluate the latest scientific information on pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the water environment. PPCPs include prescription and over-the-counter drugs, veterinary drugs, fragrances, and cosmetics; multiple studies have shown them to be present in lakes and rivers, with some research suggesting certain drugs are causing ecological harm. The goal of the forum was to ensure that the very best available science is used to establish priorities and drive management decisions regarding PPCPs in the Northeast’s water resources.
Dr. Paul Anastas, assistant administrator for U.S. EPA’s Office of Research and Development, delivered the forum’s keynote address (see photo at left). Anastas is widely known as the “father of green chemistry” for his research on environmentally-friendly chemicals. “We need to think differently,” Anastas said. “Green chemistry is about what can be done rather than what cannot be done.” Amplifying that point was Anastas’s brother, Dr. Nicholas Anastas of MassDEP, who said, “Imagine designing pharmaceuticals, using minimal solvents and reduced energy inputs, which are specifically targeted to a disease, resulting in fewer side effects and a rapid breakdown in the environment to innocuous products. This is the challenge to green chemists. This is the holy grail.”
On the attendee evaluations, every aspect of the conference earned either a “very satisfied” or “satisfied” grade, and the comments included statements such as “very good presentations and nice mix of focus.” And in a summary of the conference written by USGS’s Patrick J. Phillips, one of the region’s top PPCP experts, he wrote, “The variety of talks presented at the forum showed how well the science has progressed in the region over the last several years.”
We appreciate the positive feedback, and look forward to hosting another Northeast Water Science Forum in the future. PowerPoint presentations from the Portland event are available for download at the conference website.
The Nonpoint Source Pollution Conference on May 17-18 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., marked the twenty-second annual edition of this event, which once again attracted many of the finest minds and most prominent people working on NPS programs. This year’s theme was “NPS Management in a Lean, Green Scene,” drawing attention to the states’ desire to move towards more sustainable practices while facing the reality of state and municipal budget problems. (In the photo at right, NYSDEC’s Shohreh Karimipour speaks during the meeting’s opening presentations on green infrastructure in New York State.) The more than 130 attendees attended multiple sessions split among two distinct tracks, stormwater management and watershed-based nonpoint source management. Paul Tukey, bestselling author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual and founder of SafeLawns.org, delivered the keynote address, “Ten Words: Essential Dialogue for Saving the Planet.”
Since 1990, NEIWPCC has been coordinating the NPS Conference, with support from the NPS programs of the New England states, New York State, and EPA Regions 1 and 2, and it has long been recognized as the premier forum in our region for sharing information and improving communication on NPS issues and projects. As with the Water Science Forum, attendee evaluations of the 2011 NPS Conference were uniformly positive, with one attendee writing, “I’ve been to many stormwater-type events, and this has been by far the best I’ve attended in three years… I was glad to see an emphasis on science and the nuances of stormwater management, and really learned a lot.”
Planning is already underway for the next edition of the conference, to be held in mid-May in Portsmouth, N.H. (specific dates and location to be determined). PowerPoint presentations from the Saratoga Springs event will be available soon for download at the NPS Conference archives.
Focus on Training
NEIWPCC’s commitment to continually improve our training programs can be seen in our launch of a new web-based system that displays our schedule of courses calendar-style and color-coded by state. Click on a course and you get not only a complete description of the material to be covered, but also the latest information on available seats, date or time changes, etc. The calendar allows users to easily filter the display to show only those courses offered in a particular state. To view the new calendar, visit our training schedule page.
We have also launched a new web page devoted to NEIWPCC’s customized training. If your organization needs a course not currently offered by NEIWPCC, desires a class tailored to specific needs, or simply wishes to have one of our existing courses brought directly to your facility, contact us at 978-323-7929 or by email. Clients throughout New England and New York State, including Intel, IBM, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, and the U.S. Department of the Navy, have benefited from NEIWPCC’s custom training programs.
On a sad note, we join the many mourning the passing of MassDEP’s Mike Ackerman. Mike worked for MassDEP for more than three decades, and in recent years, he helped train wastewater treatment plant operators at the Richard Alden Training Facility in Millbury, Mass. Mike in fact was one of the lead trainers at Millbury when NEIWPCC assumed responsibility for Massachusetts’s training and certification programs in 2005. His assistance with the complicated transition was invaluable. In an email, MassDEP’s Dennis Dunn wrote, “Mike was a wonderful guy who we all will miss dearly.” At NEIWPCC, we wholeheartedly concur.
Once again this summer, NEIWPCC’s coordination of the Youth and the Environment Program in Lowell, Mass., will allow a small group of young people from the Lowell area to get a hands-on environmental education while earning a steady wage. From early July to mid-August, the YEP participants will work daily at the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility, doing everything from hosing primary and secondary clarifier weirs (see photo at left from last year) to conducting analyses in the plant’s laboratory. They will also receive daily lessons on environmental topics such as climate change, and take a field trip each week to such destinations as the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Deer Island sewage treatment plant and the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, N.H.
EPA developed YEP to introduce economically disadvantaged inner-city and rural youth to career opportunities in the environmental field by providing them with practical work experience and academic training. An EPA grant to NEIWPCC provides funding for the Lowell program, which is also supported by our other partners in the project—the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility, the City of Lowell, and the Career Center of Lowell. For more on the Lowell YEP, contact NEIWPCC’s Don Kennedy. With EPA’s support, NEIWPCC also plans to again offer YEP this summer at Bronx Community College in New York. The Bronx program is traditionally coordinated by the Partnership for Environmental Technology Education under a contract with NEIWPCC.
A joint effort of the Water Environment Federation and American Water Works Association is also bringing exposure to water-related career opportunities, albeit on a much broader scale. Working collaboratively with U.S. EPA, WEF and AWWA joined together to develop Work for Water, a website filled with resources for finding jobs and preparing for careers in the water and wastewater fields. Students and job seekers can explore career options, and utilities will find a clearinghouse of resources for recruiting. The site contains a vast amount of information ranging from how to write a good résumé to how much, generally, different water positions can pay.
Year in Review
NEIWPCC's latest annual report looks back on our achievements in fiscal 2010 and the progress made on water and wastewater issues. The report includes a letter from 2010 NEIWPCC Chair Andrew Fisk; an overview of our leadership’s activities; comprehensive coverage of the work performed in water quality, wastewater and onsite systems, water resource protection, and education and outreach; and results of the audit of NEIWPCC’s program revenue and expenditures for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2010. Visit our Annual Report page to download the report or order a print copy.
The opinions and information stated in iWR are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NEIWPCC.