Ohio EPA – USGS NAWQA Interface:  Managing Water Resources in a Data-rich Environment

 

Speech given at U.S. Congressional Briefing on May 14, 2004, by Bob Miltner, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency

 

 

One of the primary missions of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is to carry-out key provisions of the Nation’s Clean Water Act (CWA).  The CWA calls for states to report on the quality of their respective waters; this report is commonly known as the 305(b) report.  The CWA also requires states to develop a list of water bodies identified as polluted – the 303(d) list, and to formulate plans to restore beneficial uses to listed waters.  Ohio EPA is recognized as having one of the leading water quality monitoring programs in the nation.  This recognition is borne, in part, by the low error rate Ohio EPA has in classifying water bodies as either meeting or not meeting basic Clean Water Act goals.  A low error rate is obviously important in that we want to avoid wasting resources on spurious 303(d) listings (that is, listing water bodies as polluted when, in fact, they are not), and conversely, we want to avoid failing to identify polluted waters.  Ohio EPA’s low error rate is accomplished by making decisions in a science-based, data-rich environment.  The USGS NAWQA program helps Ohio EPA make informed water resource management decisions by providing information from independent water quality studies, advancing the science of water quality monitoring, and through collaborative studies and sharing of technical expertise for the study of water quality problems.  The Miami NAWQA, in particular, has contributed in each of these areas. 

 

Independent verification of study results is the bedrock foundation of science, and is common practice in laboratory studies.  However, given the cost, resource demands, and multiplicity of often competing objectives, water quality studies of whole catchments, on the scale of those performed by NAWQA and Ohio EPA, are seldom reproduced independently.  NAWQA is one of the few programs that provide this vital piece of science.  For example, an Ohio EPA Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study determined that the Stillwater River basin was carrying excess loads of nutrients to the Great Miami River (GMR).  The TMDL study identified agricultural fertilizers as the source of most of the nutrient load, and suggested that the excess was driven by a combination of the numerous Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) in the Stillwater River basin, and a lack of assimilative capacity in the stream network due to the practice of ditching streams in the basin.  The Miami NAWQA in fact demonstrated that the Stillwater River contributes up to fifty percent more nutrient load than either of the comparably sized, and adjacent Mad River or upper GMR basins.  Both the upper GMR and the Mad River basins are agriculturally dominated, but lack the concentrations of AFOs found in the Stillwater basin. These corroborating results, especially from a non-regulatory, scientific agency, gave credence to Ohio EPA’s results with a circumspect, and understandably suspicious, agricultural community and made TMDL actions more acceptable to the operations causing the excessive nutrient loads.             

 

In a similar vein, the Miami NAWQA study of urbanization and stream quality drew comparable conclusions to an Ohio EPA state-wide study of effects from urbanization, confirming the importance of maintaining riparian buffers and stream physical habitat.  This finding has clear implications in drawing guidelines for suburban development.  It is timely with respect to several on-going Ohio EPA TMDL studies, particularly the Big Darby Creek TMDL.  Big Darby Creek has been designated by American Rivers as one of the ten most imperiled rivers in our nation because it is threatened by suburbanization.  The NAWQA study was able to confirm what Ohio EPA could only conclude inferentially, that a significant part of the cause of poor biological quality in urbanized catchments is due to loadings of insecticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals.  This later finding was supported by the exchange of data between USGS and Ohio EPA.  These findings are important because many researchers focus mainly on the consequences of hydrologic alteration affected by impervious surfaces and ignore water quality.  Knowing the importance of water chemistry to aquatic ecosystems helps Ohio EPA assign with greater confidence the causes and sources of pollution to impaired waters appearing on the 303(d) list.

 

Without NAWQA’s findings water pollution impacts in urban areas would have been under-diagnosed by Ohio EPA’s routine survey methods.  NAWQA studies sample fewer sites more intensively within a given geographic area.  Ohio EPA samples more extensively but with less intensity at any given site.  Obviously the two study approaches are geared toward achieving different specific objectives, but together prove complimentary.  For example, Ohio EPA’s large inventory of stream data throughout the GMR basin was helpful in guiding site selection and data interpretation for the intensive USGS urban gradient study, the results of which, in turn have helped Ohio EPA better understand urban streams as just described.

 

Lastly, by providing technical expertise developed within the NAWQA program, and through collaborative study, USGS has helped shape Ohio EPA’s on-going efforts toward developing TMDLs, nutrient water quality standards, and monitoring of non-point pollution.  Ohio EPA has adopted methods for sampling and quantifying periphyton communities developed by the NAWQA program and described by Dr. Julie Hambrook that are currently being applied to the study of nutrient enrichment in Ohio’s rivers and streams.  Furthermore, USGS has shared data and sample splits from a similar study in Indiana which have helped substantiate the data quality of the Ohio EPA study.          USGS has also supplied technical assistance to Ohio EPA’s Nonpoint Source Section and analytical laboratory for developing the capability within Ohio EPA to analyze water and sediment samples for “new-age” pesticides.              

 

In summary, the NAWQA program provides essential scientific functions to Ohio EPA that would otherwise be lacking, and so not only provides timely and useful water quality information, but furthers the mission of other resource agencies.