The Clean Water Act has significantly improved U.S. water quality. The law’s initial focus on point sources of pollution (wastewater treatment plants), followed by National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) stormwater programs, are largely responsible for continuous improvements.
But success has come at a price.
One legacy is that communities allocate limited resources toward regulatory compliance over most other criteria, which is neither financially sustainable nor environmentally optimal. In search of a more pragmatic, environmentally holistic, and cost-effective reinvestment methodology, EPA published the Integrated Municipal Stormwater and Wastewater Planning Approach Framework in June. It’s an acknowledgement that regulators have to provide owners/operators enough latitude to pursue approaches that:
- Are within their community’s ability to financially sustain
- Meet environmental standards as characterized by existing permits and regulations
- Can be adapted and improved upon on the basis of demonstrated results and scientific evidence.
EPA’s integrated approach for water resource management is voluntary. Its success depends upon interpretation and implementation primarily by state enforcement agencies, working with regional EPA offices. Incentives to participate are still something of an abstraction until there’s a greater sample set from which to draw. Consequently, this may not feel like a very robust regulatory concession. However, the regulated community cannot afford to dismiss any opportunity that invites new thinking about an old problem — especially one that creates an opportunity to drive their own water resource management destiny.
A bigger bang for the buck
Today, stormwater and wastewater are regulated through largely separate frameworks with independent permitting, results metrics, and reporting obligations. Regulatory jurisdiction of the various NPDES programs resides at the state level for all but four states: Idaho, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. Locally, many municipalities delegate the management of wastewater and stormwater infrastructure policy to different jurisdictional entities within the city or town.
At the local level, policy-making, enforcement, maintenance, operations, planning, design, construction, monitoring, and reporting on wastewater and stormwater activities could conceivably engage more than a dozen departments, boards, commissions, or executive agencies. Each group’s respective missions are spelled out in different permits, on different schedules with different compliance points, under a variety of potential enforcement actions. This is hardly the platform for coordinated activity that achieves the best environmental and public safety results for the dollars spent.
Through the “Framework,” EPA provides communities with the operating principles and elements of a plan that will justify the prioritization of local implementation actions relevant to either or both of the storm/wastewater resource realms. Ultimately, the integrated plan will be the basis for conditions, actions, and schedules reflected in enforceable documents.
The Framework doesn’t waive existing requirements under the Clean Water Act, but focuses on how a community plans to achieve compliance. The desired outcome is a “bigger bang for the buck” process that incorporates innovative strategies (most emphatically, green infrastructure) and project sequencing that’s both more affordable and more beneficial than traditional approaches.
Principles, plans and intent
EPA has identified four overarching principles. Paraphrased, they are:
1. The regulations are unchanged. Only EPA’s perspective on potential solutions has changed.
2. Major issues such as combined sewer overflow (CSO) controls, wastewater treatment plant upgrades, or nutrient management BMPs go to the head of the line (assuming the rating criteria and rationale are sound).
3. Participation is voluntary, but a community’s subsequent plan (or parts of it) may be incorporated into enforceable documents.
4. Innovative technologies and green infrastructure are expected to be significant components of recommended actions.
The Framework consists of six plan elements:
1. A description of issues to be addressed in the plan (laying the groundwork and context)
2. A description of existing conditions
3. A public outreach and/or education process that provides adequate public input
4. An alternatives analysis addressing sustainable infrastructure techniques, approach, criteria, schedules, costs, and financial strategy
5. Metrics and performance criteria
6. A description of the process for continuous improvement of the plan.
Since many states already encourage or require an integrated approach to water-quality planning, these may feel familiar. The difference is that EPA intends the plan’s conclusions or preferred actions to be incorporated into permits, enforcement orders, or consent decrees.
Under many state planning models, the regulatory framework runs through the state National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. Hence, if projects from an approved plan move forward, it’s assumed they’ll gain permitting. The Framework’s approach is somewhat different: If regulators approve a proposal, projects must move forward because they’re likely to become the basis of permits.
This is an important distinction. A self-determined, legally enforceable plan that balances sanitary, combined sewer, and stormwater infrastructure demands is preferable to untimely or unrealistic resource demands from any one sector based on competing permits. But at the same time, communities have unique concerns and institutional confidence in the current approach. Thus, integrated planning won’t be suitable for everyone.
Key component: alternatives analysis
Integrated planning is meant to help you identify efficiencies in implementing requirements that arise from separate wastewater and stormwater capital investment programs. The methodology is intentionally broad, allowing for creative solutions appropriate to a community’s unique needs.
A good integrated approach takes a look at the receiving water body holistically and attempts to make investments based on producing the highest water-quality benefit. At the heart of the process is the alternatives analysis — a screening methodology that’s well-established in the facilities planning arena. The Framework emphasizes sustainable practices and the use of asset-management tools to quantify as well as characterize benefits based on certain criteria, seeking to produce a broader selection of alternatives outside of the standard grey infrastructure palette, to lower the community’s overall compliance costs.
Currently, the cost to meet new NPDES regulations, and particularly the growing number of approved Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) requirements, are high. EPA’s “Sustainable Stormwater Funding Evaluation for the Upper Charles River Communities of Bellingham, Franklin and Milford, MA” concluded that meeting TMDLs in the Upper Charles River Basin could cost these small communities anywhere between $79 million and $100 million — far beyond their financial capabilities. EPA has clearly stated that water quality standards, including TMDLs, will not be waived under this program. But they could deploy the new framework to develop a plan that addresses water-quality milestones over a greater, but defined, period of time, that’s also financially feasible.
Under the integrated planning and regulatory regime, asset management is crucial to identifying long-term environmental and public safety liabilities and planning a capital improvement program that addresses highest risks and greatest benefit, first. For instance, highest risk could be characterized as greatest potential for catastrophic failure, greatest potential impact on public safety, or greatest environmental impact. Risks are identified through asset management techniques such as mapping/inventory, condition/performance assessments, life-cycle and replacement cost analyses, and level-of-service determinations that characterize wastewater and stormwater assets in terms of immediate, intermediate, or long-term investment demands.
While risk is an important criterion for prioritizing projects, they also must clearly identify a benefit. In addition to the obvious — water quality — potential benefits include community impact, risk mitigation, cost, constructability, and funding opportunity.
Integrated planning also requires looking concurrently at different systems and making investment decisions based on the longer implementation horizon the Framework provides. For example, multiple stormwater upgrades that improve overall water quality might trump a single CSO project. Don’t overlook financially and environmentally attractive green infrastructure techniques that contribute to overall watershed improvement simply because a burst pipe may need to be managed on a crisis basis.
Before finalizing the integrated framework, EPA convened several workshops around the country. From them, and through written comment, the agency documented several challenges to implementation. Concerns that arose most frequently include:
- Administrative burden on state agencies
- Need for consistency between EPA headquarters and regional offices
- Financial capability at the municipal level
- Flexibility for adaptive management techniques
- Concern about the use of permits versus enforcement actions for implementation
- How to incorporate drinking water into the equation
- The ubiquitous concern regarding the devil in the details.
The greatest concern is that there are no guarantees that NPDES permits will be modified. A community that uses the integrated planning methodology is building the basis for an NPDES agreement that may not be accepted. The Framework also assumes that state, regional, and federal regulators will communicate effectively and agree with each other. If the outcome of the plan is the basis for managing and operating assets, infrastructure managers must have the assurance that regulators are in accord with the Framework and that the plan will be reflected in the permits under which their operations are ultimately judged.
Another wrinkle: no dedicated federal funds support this undertaking at the local level. However, any state with access to state revolving funds (SRF) can use them to initiate integrated planning projects if they choose to do so. Since last year, EPA’s green infrastructure initiative — the Community Partnerships program — has supplemented revolving loans for 27 communities; in July, 17 communities in 16 states were chosen to share a total of $950,000 in technical assistance for code review, green infrastructure design, and cost-benefit assessments. The agency hopes to fund future projects, but again — no guarantees.
So why pursue it?
It’s a pragmatic and progressive approach to environmental regulation. Stormwater and wastewater managers within a community or region have been forced by competing regulatory regimes to compete with each other for their portion of ever-dwindling labor and financial resources. This framework may help them pool their resources and deploy them more powerfully.
Two communities use EPA’s Framework for planning stormwater and wastewater improvements to deal with CSO issues and implement long-term control plans.
Under the U.S. EPA’s new integrated planning and regulatory regime, asset management is crucial to identifying long-term environmental and public safety liabilities and allocating limited resources to capital improvements that most dramatically lower risk and improve water quality. Here are two examples.
Springfield Water and Sewer Commission, Springfield, Mass., is employing a risk-based asset management approach to capital planning. The GIS-based effort is the result of opportunistic and incremental data development during multiple infrastructure projects. With a firm understanding of the leveraged use of this data in mind, a consistent standard related to the data quality and content has been employed.
This prompted managers to revise their 20-30 year capital plan to balance combined sewer overflow (CSO) projects with projects that address existing improvement obligations while also providing other Clean Water Act benefits. Their Long Term Control Plan for the Control of Combined Sewer Overflows, which includes their 20-30 year Integrated Wastewater Implementation Plan, is being reviewed by both state and federal EPA offices.
Integrated planning is particularly beneficial for communities, like Springfield, dealing with CSO issues and implementing long-term control plans. The methodology allows them to address the inherent process/priority conflict between CSO and municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) program obligations.
Another northeastern community, which asked to not be identified. Older urban cities are often years and hundreds of millions of dollars into combined sewer separations that predate their MS4 permit obligations. The complicated manner in which these programs co-exist is now getting some necessary regulatory re-evaluation thanks to EPA’s integrated planning framework.
Let’s say a recently approved phosphorus Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the MS4 receiving water body requires a 65% reduction in discharge pollutant loads.
The community has spent millions separating storm and sanitary sewers to minimize or eliminate CSO wet-weather events. New stormwater control projects incorporating low-impact design techniques and “first flush” capture are reducing total discharges and providing some treatment, but by regulatory definition under the NPDES MS4 permit these same projects create “new” impervious areas whenever they redirect separated storm sewer discharges to surface water bodies rather than a treatment plant.
Many NPDES MS4 general permits require “new discharges” to meet more stringent limits. The receiving water body has an existing and approved TMDL, so the newly separated flow is adding a pollutant load that didn’t exist when the TMDL was developed for this impaired water. The permit could be interpreted to imply that the load reduction for that area isn’t the already difficult 65% for phosphorus, but a virtually impossible 100%.
Separating stormwater that has to be treated at additional cost is not good, nor financially sustainable, public policy. In this scenario, achieving CSO program goals creates double jeopardy under the MS4 program. A balanced approach by regulators is in order, one that weighs the value of CSO benefits against MS4 obligations to achieve the long-term goal of better overall water quality.