A Consistent Message at WEFTEC

Water convention attendees want more regulatory clarity.

The WEFTEC water quality conference, with its acres of pumps, filters, water treatment devices and other gizmos, moved out of the L.A. Convention Center last week. But I’m still thinking about what the 20,000-person gathering of H2O nerds means for our nation’s waters.  I was asked to give three talks at the conference: one on the public view of chemicals of emerging concern in recycled water; another on the future of stormwater regulation for cities and industry; and a discussion on the greening of Los Angeles through stormwater projects and regulation.

After the debates with water professionals, I was struck by a common need:  Everyone wants greater regulatory consistency and clarity.

The current federal approach is for regulations, memos, and policies to have  a great deal of  “flexibility.” But that wiggle room means that there isn’t much incentive to improve water quality programs.  Any investor in cutting-edge water treatment technology should have the expectation that the regulatory climate will push everyone to cleaner water that is more protective of human health and aquatic life.

Without that regulatory certainty, there’s no incentive for cities or industry to buy more expensive, more effective water pollution technologies other than “doing the right thing.”  Based on the lack of progress on stormwater pollution abatement nationwide, the altruistic approach has resulted in limited success.

My two stormwater talks emphasized the need for a more technical definition of a structural “Best Management Practice.” For the last two decades, most cities and industrial sites have installed treatment devices with little regard to BMP sizing for a design storm or water quality performance. Stormwater pollution regulations need to include design storm and treatment performance requirements to raise the bar in the industry.

Such regulations would separate truth from reality on claims and promises made by treatment technology vendors.  In the L.A. region, the design storm of the 85th percentile storm (about three-quarters of an inch) has been used for new construction and redevelopment, but not for all BMPs.  It’s worth noting that Ventura County’s stormwater permit includes a water quality performance design criteria for all new BMPs.

To ensure greater certainty and clarity in regulation, watchdogs need to insist on numeric effluent criteria in stormwater permits, both industrial and municipal.  In the environmental community, this topic has remained the biggest issue in stormwater for over 20 years.  I remember meetings of the USEPA Federal Advisory Committee on urban wet weather in the early 1990s.  One of the more conservative members on the committee, Doug Harrison from Fresno, stated that it was too early to consider numeric effluent limits in permits because we needed more data to better understand stormwater variability.  He suggested that 2005 would be a better time for numeric limits to be incorporated in permits.  I was angry at the time.  Little did I know that we were closer to numeric limits in 1995 than we are today.

The response of WEFTEC attendees to the suggestion on numeric limits surprised me.  Remember, the audience wasn’t just locals from the L.A. area.  There were people from all over the U.S. and Canada.  A number of people in the room from industry, BMP manufacturers, and environmental consulting firms spoke out in favor of numeric limits because of the clarity that such limits would provide. Businesses clearly want greater certainty and a level playing field in the arena of environmental compliance.

Overall, I left WEFTEC with the impression that professionals in the field are frustrated with the lack of progress.  More leadership is needed from the feds on stormwater to incentivize the utilization and development of better treatment and infiltration technologies.

After all, the engineers, technicians, and scientists at WEFTEC have green jobs and they are all working on providing the nation with sustainable infrastructure that protects human health and aquatic life.  A federal investment in an integrated green water infrastructure (i.e., the management of wastewater, drinking water, and stormwater as one water) with regulatory certainty and incentives for improving technology would create green jobs. The investment would pay off for workers and the environment for generations to come.

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