A Review of Virginia’s TMDL Assessment

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By Neil Saunders

Given the EPA’s recent interim assessment of the Bay States’ ongoing implementation of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL and the Third Circuit’s affirmation of the legality of the Bay TMDL, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the findings of Virginia’s water quality assessment. While this assessment is relevant to the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, in that any sub-watersheds belonging to the Chesapeake watershed apply to the Bay TMDL, it encompasses all of the waterbodies in Virginia- not only those belonging to the Bay watershed.

Virginia may be on track towards Bay TMDL implementation, but current water quality in the state is still far from healthy. According to Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) 2014 water quality assessment, a significant percentage of rivers, lakes, and estuaries are “impaired” in three out of the six designated uses in Virginia: recreation, aquatic life, and fish consumption.

The assessment sites the presence of E. Coli from agriculture, urban runoff, leaking sanitary and storm sewers, and domesticated animals as primarily responsible for the impairment of the recreation use. For aquatic life, low levels of dissolved oxygen concentration and nutrient enrichment are the primary cause of impairment. Specific causes for impairment of fish consumption are mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The remaining designated uses are shellfishing, public water supply, and wildlife, which have a much lower percentage of impaired waterbodies.

Additionally, a vast majority of lakes (81%) and estuarine waters (75%) tested are impaired for at least one designated use. River waters have a lower percentage of impairment (17%), but this figure does not take into account the 78% categorized as non-assessed due to insufficient data. DEQ utilizes two methods of data collection: DEQ-approved monitoring, which includes all monitoring performed by DEQ or individuals approved by DEQ, and lower quality, DEQ-non-approved monitoring, which includes outside data collection by citizen groups, the private sector, and other government organizations. Both types of monitoring play an important role in DEQ’s overall assessment methodology (p. 4). It is not clear from the report, however, why so much data for river waters are insufficient to assess.

The VA DEQ 2104 assessment is based on six years of monitoring between 2007 and 2012. The Clean Water Act requires every state to submit to the EPA a biennial review describing the quality of their navigable waters. Virginia uses a monitoring schedule that covers 1/3 of all waters every two years, so that all waters are monitored within a six-year period.

Unlike the EPA interim assessment, however, this water quality assessment provides a more accurate and immediate sense of what the Virginia’s water quality was in 2012. As the information in this report shows, despite Virginia staying on track for the most part to meet the Bay TMDL implementation targets, there is still a long way to go and a lot that needs to be done for the water quality to actually improve.

One of the biggest areas for improvement is monitoring. As stated earlier, almost 80% of river waters throughout the state are categorized as “non-assessed” due to lack of sufficient data. As a result, it is uncertain what percentage of these rivers are meeting their respective water quality standards, and what percentage are impaired or threatened. Unfortunately, a lack of sufficient monitoring- a problem which exists in most states- is more easily fixable in theory than in practice: understaffing at the agencies charged with conducting the water quality assessments as well as budgetary constraints severely limit the amount of waters that can be properly assessed.

One potential way in which monitoring can improve is through Virginia’s citizen monitoring programs. DEQ relies on citizen monitoring data to supplement its own data collection, and offers grant money to organizations through the state’s Citizen Water Quality Monitoring Grant Program. While DEQ cites 120 such organizations as providing data for the current assessment, not all data collected could be used because they did not meet DEQ’s assessment methodolgy or procedures. If more citizen-collected data could be used by DEQ, through additional citizen involvement and proper training, more waterbodies could be assessed, which would lead to more accurate assessments of water quality and more accurate changes to address water quality conditions.

Improved monitoring may not directly address other issues plaguing water quality, such as excessive bacteria or nutrient enrichment, but with more accurate assessments, Virginia can more effectively manage its regulatory framework to achieve greater reductions in pollution and better meet the goals of the Clean Water Act and Bay TMDL.

The information in this post was acquired from the report available on VA DEQ’s website: http://www.deq.state.va.us/Programs/Water/WaterQualityInformationTMDLs/WaterQualityAssessments/2014305(b)303(d)IntegratedReport.aspx#factsheets.

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