Idaho Water Quality Work
by Pat McCoy, Staff Writer
BOISE -- Efforts to write pollution loading limit plans and put them into action within eight years, as required by a 1995 court ruling, are on schedule in Idaho.
With two years left to go, officials working with the project are determined to meet the schedule.
"We directed our regional offices to look at the remaining stream segments on the list, prioritize them, and get the job done," said Barry M. Burnell, administrator of the water quality division, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
"That process is well under way," he said.
Many of the plans still remaining to be completed, known officially as total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs, deal with water temperature. Idaho deliberately postponed dealing with that issue until now, he said.
"We needed more experience in preparing temperature TMDLs than we had at first. Temperature problems can be tougher to get your arms around," Burnell said. "Waiting allowed us to try out some new techniques to address solar loading and the results of various actions, such as increasing natural vegetation.
"We also wrote the concept of natural background into our rules. That lets us write temperature TMDLs tailored to the individual watershed," he said.
Tony Bennett and Biff Burleigh work closely with the program on the agricultural side. Both are employees of the Idaho Soil Conservation Commission.
"The SCC was charged with dealing with the agriculture and grazing components of TMDLs," Bennett said. "To date, we've completed the ag components for 38 TMDLs, and 36 are in progress. From the agricultural standpoint, we've definitely met the court ordered schedule."
Local Districts, WAGs
To accomplish this, the commission worked through Idaho's 51 local soil conservation districts. The districts helped pull together citizen working groups named Watershed Advisory Groups, or WAGs, which approached each stream on a watershed basis, he said.
New legislation passed by state lawmakers in the spring of 2005 enhances the participation of WAGs in the process. DEQ is required to review all TMDLs every five years. As part of that process, the WAG must be reconvened, and given an opportunity for input, Burnell said.
The ag components of the TMDLs focus heavily on riparian corridors, or the streambanks, implementing best management practices that halt or at least minimize soil erosion, and taking other actions to keep pollutants out of water in the first place, Bennett and Burleigh said.
"We've taken a very proactive approach, and moved aggressively to respond. The local districts took the lead, and farmers and ranchers willingly took action to protect the resource," Bennett said.
Actions range from replacing surface irrigation with pivot systems to riparian fencing to keep livestock away from streambanks. Direct seeding and developing off-stream drinking water sources for domestic animals are also part of the program. To help pay for it, the commission offered loans under the Resource Conservation and Rangeland Development Program, and cost-share monies under the state Water Quality Program for Agriculture. There are also conservation improvement grants, Burleigh said.
The SCC currently has just over 30 projects under way with funds from the Water Quality Program for Agriculture. There are about 10 conservation improvement grants active as of the end of December. The SCC has another 176 loans out, worth a total of $5.8 million, under the RCRDP program, he said.
All of this worked hand in glove with various federal conservation programs available to farmers administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, he said.
"It's very important to recognize that the work is being handled through an integrated partnership with the SCC, the local SCDs, the NRCS, DEQ, and the WAGs," he said.
Because the work is being done on a watershed basis, most TMDLs involve multiple streams. Most plans cover several stream segments and pollutants, others only one. That makes it very difficult to identify how many stream segments in Idaho are currently covered by TMDLs, Bennett, Burleigh and Burnell all said.
However, a look at the 2002 report Idaho sent to EPA reports the state has monitored and assessed over half its 92,948 miles of water bodies for how well the water meets CWA standards. Some 25 percent of all waters in the state are deemed to meet the standards and support beneficial uses. The proportion of streams reaching that goal is increasing as TMDLs are applied.
TMDLs must be approved by the EPA. That process is complete for 12,001 miles of Idaho waters. Another 3,320 miles of waters previously listed under the CWA were found to meet their beneficial uses, and no longer require a TMDL, according to DEQ.
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