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Water

State Funds an Important Part of Water Quality Efforts

Written by Bobbie Frank

By Bobbie Frank 

    There are currently 85 impaired or threatened waters identified by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that the local conservation districts, under the leadership of citizens’ watershed steering committees, are working to restore. With the increasing workload, the need to demonstrate “good faith efforts” in improving water quality, along with new strings attached to federal Clean Water Act funding, have necessitated the conservation districts’ request that the Department of Agriculture increase the level of state funding currently utilized for water quality efforts across the state. The funding request amounts to $375,738.
    In the past year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun putting pressure on the DEQ to only fund watershed improvement efforts where a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) has been established. This means that grant funds for planning, water quality monitoring and cost-share for implementation of projects such as water developments, septic rehabilitation, animal feeding operations, etc. will not be available until after the DEQ has completed a TMDL or unless the districts agree to develop an “EPA Watershed-based Plan.” This is a development that many districts are not comfortable with as it, like a TMDL, requires the identification of pollutant loads by land use activity. Obviously, getting a jump-start on implementation of on-the-ground water quality improvement efforts utilizing the federal funds will be stymied in the future.
    In addition, now that the state has approved the new Chapter 1 water quality regulations, there is an opportunity to submit data and information for a change in the recreation use designation (recreation use designations determine the E. coli standard for a given waterbody). Since E. coli is the pollutant responsible for most of the state’s non-point source water quality impairments, this change makes meeting the water quality standard more realistic. Accurately protecting waters for their true capabilities for recreation use is important in ensuring the proper E. coli standard is applied. There are a good number of waters in this state that have little to no water yet they are being protected for swimming uses. This results in time and money being targeted to the wrong water quality problems. However, to make these changes it will require someone to collect the necessary information and get it submitted to DEQ. It’s a role that many districts will likely assume.
    Wyoming state law, regulations and the Nonpoint Source Management Plan, contemplates that once a water quality issue is identified, those potential contributors to the problem will take “good faith” efforts to implement management practices to reduce the contribution of pollutants that may be exacerbating the water quality problem. Although the state does, unlike the EPA, retain the ability and authority to regulate nonpoint source pollutants, or more accurately the land use activity that is contributing the pollutant, they do not typically regulate those activities and rely on the voluntary, incentive-based “good faith” approach. This approach was recently recognized by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on the Pole Mountain area. Given the variability and uncertainty of nonpoint source pollution, it is recognized that implementing management changes and then determining if any improvement is realized is the acceptable approach. It is imperative, especially in the atmosphere of continual challenges to multiple uses of the public lands, these voluntary water quality improvement efforts continue without delay.
    One of the keys to the success of the watershed efforts in Wyoming has been the technical assistance provided to the local districts and their constituents. Through a partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Department of Agriculture, the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts has contracted for two watershed coordinators to serve the needs of the local people. These coordinators, housed in Cheyenne and Buffalo, drive countless hours across the state to offer assistance in understanding the various rules and regulations, initiating watershed planning, the development of monitoring plans, and with data collection for accurate classifications. Funding for one of the positions was obtained through a federal Clean Water Act grant for the past four years. The other was secured with existing state funding. The grant dollars are no longer available. Without the increase in state funding, one of the two positions will no longer exist. This ultimately limits the direct assistance to the local people for their efforts.
    The Association recently published the “2007 watersheds progress” report. This report provides a synopsis of all of the water quality improvement efforts across the state. The citizenry of this state has truly stepped up. The funding for these efforts is approximately 30 percent local and private funding, 50 percent federal funding and the remaining 20 percent state funding. The requested funds, although not a huge amount, allow the local districts to leverage other local state and federal funding.
    The watersheds progress reports will soon be available at www.conservewy.com. Bobbie Frank is Executive Director of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts.