New Clean Water Initiatives Welcome but Highlight Need for More Oversight and Enforcement

August is National Water Quality Month, and efforts to clean and protect water resources have never been more important. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced new initiatives to reduce water pollution and modernize existing clean water programs. In addition, the agency expects to propose improved drinking water standards within the year, according to the latest Unified Regulatory Agenda. Still, EPA has yet to address a number of serious health and safety risks related to water quality.

Recent Actions and New Tools for Clean Water

The EPA announced several promising initiatives and regulatory improvements this summer. At the end of July, the agency proposed a rule that would modernize Clean Water Act (CWA) reporting by requiring companies to electronically provide information on the pollutants they discharge. This will provide agencies and the public with more timely, complete, and accurate information about potential sources of water pollution. Currently, facilities must obtain permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and submit paper reports to regulatory authorities who then manually enter the information.

EPA assistant administrator Cynthia Giles said, "The e-reporting rule will substantially expand transparency by making it easier for everyone to quickly access critical data on pollution that may be affecting communities." When fully implemented, the rule is expected to save states approximately $29 million annually. The agency will accept public comments on the proposed rule until Oct. 28. (Click here to view the rulemaking information on and submit comments to EPA.)

As part of President Obama's Climate Action Plan, EPA also released a new application to help manage stormwater runoff pollution. Stormwater, contaminated with sewage, trash, and hazardous chemicals, flows into the water supply and can make it unsafe for use. The National Stormwater Calculator estimates the annual amount of rainwater and frequency of runoff from any location in the U.S. Intended for use by anyone interested in reducing runoff from a property, the calculator estimates the annual amount of stormwater runoff from a selected area and shows users how specific green infrastructure practices, including rain gardens, green roofs, and street planters, can help reduce pollution.

While this individual citizen engagement is useful, environmental groups are urging the EPA to take stronger action to prevent runoff pollution. Last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed petitions with three EPA regional offices, asking the agency to require stormwater management for commercial, industrial, and institutional sites in areas impaired by copper, lead, phosphorus, nitrogen, and other pollutants. Groups were frustrated that EPA failed to issue proposed regulatory requirements for stormwater runoff in June as promised.

More Water Safety Standards on the Way

The EPA's latest agenda indicates it will propose new drinking water regulations by the end of 2013. In 2011, the EPA determined that perchlorate – a chemical often found in rocket fuel, fireworks, and fertilizers that may disrupt the thyroid's ability to produce hormones critical to fetuses and infants – presents a public health threat and announced it would develop a first-ever national standard under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The announcement reversed a Bush administration decision and was praised by the public health and environmental communities. By statute, EPA was supposed to have issued a proposed rule in February, but it now projects that won't happen until December.

The EPA is also set to issue a proposed rule that will clarify which water bodies are protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA covers "waters of the United States," but an ambiguous U.S. Supreme Court decision and guidance issued by the Bush administration have created uncertainty about the agency's regulatory jurisdiction over wetlands, ponds, and streams. This has hindered EPA's ability to enforce the CWA. An EPA guidance document intended to clarify the scope of waters protected under the CWA has been under review at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for over a year. Although the regulatory agenda suggests a rulemaking is planned, EPA has not issued a timeline for the proposal.

These new water quality protections are certainly welcome, but they also highlight the need for more oversight and enforcement of existing laws. Agencies like the EPA need to be nimble and responsive to emerging hazards, including potential water contamination from fracking, increased urban and suburban runoff, and more, and they should not be stymied by unreasonable delay during the rule review process. We've made significant progress cleaning up the nation's waters since the Clean Water Act was signed in 1972, and we must continue to build on that success to protect the health of all Americans.

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