I’m working with EarthFix on an ongoing series about the Clean Water Act. If you haven’t yet, you should check out this primer on how the law works, this story about the lingering question of how clean water should be for fishermen and swimmers, and this story about how Seattle’s Duwamish River illustrates the failure of the Clean Water Act to crack down on polluters.
One criticism of the Clean Water Act is that it hasn’t kept up with all the new and emerging pollutants that are being detected in waterways. Lawmakers in 1972 couldn’t anticipate every possible chemical that could be a water pollution problem 40 years in the future.
So, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates a list of 129 priority pollutants under the Clean Water Act. But a lot of chemicals that are showing up in our water now – flame retardants, pharmaceuticals, plasticizers, new pesticides – aren’t on that list.
So, what now?
I had a really interesting conversation with Oregon Department of Environmental Quality toxics reduction specialist Kevin Masterson about this, and the highlight of our conversation centered on pesticides. Specifically, how the state is moving beyond the Clean Water Act to tackle the problem of pesticide runoff into waterways.
There are more than a thousand active pesticide ingredients on the market and being used right now. Do you know how many of them the Clean Water Act regulates?
“With pesticides you have only a fraction that are covered by the Clean Water Act, plus you have a lot of non-point sources. So, we’ve had to develop different state tools.” — Kevin MastersonSo, I asked him: Couldn’t you add more pesticides to the Clean Water Act’s regulated pollutant list?
In theory you could, Masterson said. But in reality adopting new standards for regulating pollutants under the Clean Water Act takes years.
“We feel like by the time you’ve adopted a standard, that pesticide may be off the market or farmers would be using something else,” he said.
Instead of trying to use the Clean Water Act to put pollution limits in place for each potentially problematic pesticide, DEQ has teamed up with farmers and agricultural extension agents to launch eight voluntary Pesticide Stewardship Partnerships.
The partnerships allow farmers to work with experts and regulators find ways to reduce pesticide drift and runoff: Recalibrating their pesticide spraying equipment, choosing the best weather for spraying, substituting less toxic pesticides, using biological controls for pests (like other pests), and installing vegetation buffers along streams.
The partnerships address another criticism of the Clean Water Act: That it doesn’t control pollution from non-point sources (from farmland or stormwater runoff, for example) as well as it does the point sources (outflow pipes from municipal wastewater treatment plants or industrial facilities).
“With pesticides you have only a fraction that are covered by the Clean Water Act, plus you have a lot of non-point sources,” said Masterson. “So, we’ve had to develop different state tools. By taking that more comprehensive approach and not just focusing on the standards we can address many different pesticides rather than not just a few, and that’s a more efficient use of our collective resources both the agencies and local groups.”
Brian Nakamura grows pears and cherries in the Hood River Valley. He is part of a Pesticide Stewardship Partnership with 300 fruit growers that started in 1999.
“A the time, the lab at DEQ had some new equipment so they took some (water) samples around the state, and our basin was the guinea pig,” he said. “That was when they started testing waters with detection limits in the parts per billion and even less than parts per billion.”
“This whole program of having outreach and education is a lot better off than coming down with a hammer with fines or something like that.” — Brian NakamuraTesting showed concentrations of the pesticide chlorpyrifos and the insecticide azinphos methylat levels that exceeded state standards.
DEQ had considered taking steps under the Clean Water Act to cap the amount of pesticides that could enter nearby streams, Nakamura said, but the process would have taken a lot of time and money.
Instead, they got growers to agree to take some voluntary steps to avoid new regulations: Moving their pesticide mixing stations away from streams, for example. Changing the method of spraying and checking wind patterns beforehand.
“There’s a whole slew of management practices developed for all the growers,” he said. “We get a refresher every year. The number of detections and the amounts of materials in the stream have fallen. For the first five years they all fell quite a bit.”
Nakamura said the process of forming the partnership was “uncomfortable at first” because water testing caused people to look at farmers “as the bad guy.” But now he approves of the state’s approach.
“When you’re talking about a very serious problem you don’t just throw voluntary at it, you throw regulatory and voluntary.” — Nina Bell“In this valley it has worked,” he said. “This whole program of having outreach and education is a lot better off than coming down with a hammer with fines or something like that.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approves, as well. NOAA wrote a letter to DEQ applauding the voluntary pesticide partnerships for helping salmon and steelhead on the Endangered Species List.
I checked with several environmental groups to see whether they are on board with DEQ’s voluntary approach to reducing water pollution.
Willamette Riverkeeper Director Travis Williams said he sees the wisdom of it.
“These voluntary approaches go beyond regulatory requirements,” he said. “And sometimes they’re necessary to get people on board for change. Non-regulatory approaches right now are certainly favored by a large portion of the population. It avoids a lot of the potential problems down the road and gets buy-in from farmers and ranchers. Regulations might be the motivation, but if it works, you don’t have to go there.”
However, Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates said regulators shouldn’t stop at voluntary approaches when the Clean Water Act could be used more effectively.
“The EPA could be a leader,” she said. “States could also be leaders. But they much prefer to monitor and have workshops. I’m not saying voluntary activities have no role in all this, but when you’re talking about a very serious problem you don’t just throw voluntary at it, you throw regulatory and voluntary.”