Opinion by Bobbie Frank
Water Quality Standards Revisions Utilize New Model
Bobbie Frank, Executive Director, Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts
Water quality and addressing water quality issues and concerns have been a high priority for local conservation districts and the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD) for some time. Local watershed groups have dedicated untold hours to developing watershed plans for those waters that have been identified as impaired or threatened by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). These efforts are nothing short of impressive. A summary of the watershed implementation efforts can be viewed at conservewy.com/Attached%20Files/2011WatershedReport%20video%20files/2011WatershedReportIntroS.pdf.
One of the biggest issues facing the local districts in terms of successfully addressing water quality priorities is the proper and accurate classification of our surface waters. Classifications are determined based on what uses, referred to as designated uses, any given water can support. For example drinking water, contact recreation uses and fisheries are a handful of designated use classifications.
The Department of Water Quality’s Chapter One Water Quality rules and regulations, Surface Water Quality Standards, contain the designated uses for which Wyoming’s waters are protected, as well as the method utilized to determine any given water’s ability to support these uses, the various pollutants and the limits of these pollutants that can be found in waters for them to still attain their uses.
Last fall DEQ issued a public notice for the scoping process for revisions to Chapter One regulations. The Clean Water Act requires states to conduct a review of these water quality regulations every three years. In August, the Department issued a draft revision of Chapter 1 and solicited comments. The comment period closed on September 24. The Association focused our comments on two primary areas.
The first of those changes are the proposed revisions to the E. coli standard. This standard is utilized to determine use attainment for contact recreation uses. Currently the sampling methodology for this criterion requires five samples to be collected in a 30-day time frame, with each sample collected at least 24 hours apart. DEQ is proposing to change the five in 30-day requirement to a 60-day requirement.
The number and spacing of the samples will then be addressed in DEQ’s sampling methodology document. The intent of this change is to ensure that sampling is representative of the time frame in which contact recreation activities will be occurring. WACD strongly supports this change.
A second priority change in the proposed Chapter One revisions addresses a challenge that both DEQ and districts have been grappling with for some time – the accurate and appropriate recreation use designations for Wyoming’s waters.
Wyoming has two recreational use designations – primary contact recreation and secondary contact recreation. Currently, all waters in Wyoming are designated and protected for primary contact recreation uses, such as swimming, kayaking, etc., with the exception of a few in Goshen County that went through the Use Attainability Analysis process in the past year. Primary contact recreation uses are activities determined to have a higher likelihood of someone ingesting water. The E. coli standard that applies to primary contact recreation water is obviously more stringent than the standard that applies to secondary contact recreation waters, due to the fact that secondary contact recreation activities do not typically involve immersion into the water. Examples of secondary recreation uses include wading and fishing.
DEQ attempted to address this issue in prior revisions to Chapter One, through a default classification method, meaning those waters that are on DEQ’s Table A, which includes typically larger rivers, streams and lakes, would be protected for primary. Those not on this list, or the typically smaller waters that are intermittent or ephemeral, would be protected as secondary. However, EPA has not approved this approach in the past.
After the last revision of Chapter One, when the approach wasn’t approved, districts across the state were beginning to gear up to collect the necessary data and information, referred to as a Use Attainability Analysis (UAAs), on the waters that are likely to be inappropriately and inaccurately classified. As one can imagine, this is a huge undertaking given the number of waters that information and data would need to be collected on.
Not only is this a huge undertaking for districts, an equally enormous task would face DEQ, as each one of the UAA’s submitted for re-classification triggers the administrative rulemaking process, including public notice and comment.
To their credit, the folks in the Watershed section at DEQ realized there may be an approach that would still result in a vast improvement in the accuracy of our recreation designations in a manner that was streamlined, yet rigorous and defensible.
DEQ has developed a geographical information system (GIS) based model to address this issue. This model uses a number of criteria to “shake out” those waters that should be protected for primary and those that are appropriately designated as secondary. The criteria are consistent with that contained in the UAA process in determining designations, including criteria such as parks, distance to public schools, campgrounds, etc. To assist DEQ in this effort, in 2010 the districts across Wyoming conducted field verification on nearly 800 randomly selected sites – no small undertaking to be sure. This data and information was utilized by DEQ to calibrate their model and identify any areas that may need tweaked.
The proposed revisions to Chapter One discussed the use of this model in determining recreation use support designations. This model is now in the final development phase and will also be published for public comment in the coming months. When that happens, I hope the folks across Wyoming take a look at the results. The model may not result in 100 percent accuracy, but as I have explained to our districts, it will get us a lot further down the road at a lot less time and expense to the people of Wyoming. For those waters that may still be in question, the UAA process is still available.
DEQ really needs to be commended for taking this innovative approach to a more accurate designation of primary and secondary recreation uses on our waters. The model is still undergoing review and will again be submitted to EPA for approval. This is a really important step to ensuring that Wyoming’s local and state governments, our communities and our landowners and land managers spend their time and resources addressing the highest priority water quality issues.