Monday, April 26, 2010

Who is Going to Control Your Water?

Water shortages are nothing new a consistent and clean supply of water has been problematic throughout human history. Climate does change, the Sahara Dessert had adequate surface water only 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. There were lakes and rivers and the Sahara was green. Water supply will not just be a problem in developing countries and does not even require the climate to change. Today the combination of inadequate supply of water in some locations, mismanagement of resources and the pollution of fresh water supplies with endocrine disruptors and trace chemicals from recycled water and runoff will grow into an outcry. Non-point source pollution and water ownership will become the issues in the United States and the developed world. After reducing point source pollution over the past 40 years, we are faced with the more difficult problem of non=point source pollution, Suddenly, everyone will be aware that the fresh water in some locations has annual limits (in truth we have impacted the recharge rate of our fresh water resources) and that the water supplied to their tap by public water companies includes the output stream of the waste treatment plant, urban and agricultural runoff still containing all the trace elements not tested for in our water supplies. There are limits to this renewable resource and it needs to be managed. Political influence is the recipe for mismanagement of water resources. There will be rationing in critical locations and ownership of water rights will become contested. Groundwater and surface water are tied in ways that are not yet fully understood. Changes, diversions, pumping can effect quantity of the water supply.

Non-point source (NPS) pollution is a major factor impacting the quality of the water supply in the United States today. These pollutants are transported to surface water bodies by runoff, which results from precipitation or snow melt (Leeds et al., 1993). Storm water is part of the natural hydrologic process; however, human activities, especially urban development and agriculture, cause significant changes in patterns of storm water flow and infiltration and the type and quantity of contaminants carried from land into receiving waters. The Federal Clean Water Act gives regulatory authority to restrict pollutants discharged into rivers from point sources, such as waste water treatment plants. When the regulations were created 40 years ago, they were intended to address the 85% of pollution believed to be caused by large industrial polluters. Recently William Ruckelshaus (first administrator of the EPA) wrote in the Wall Street Journal “The current generation of (environmental) problems that we are facing, though, is much more subtle, much less visible to the naked eye- and often not nearly as susceptible to a top-down, command-and-control approach.”

Federal authority does not extend to non-point sources, such as farms and septic systems, and in truth Mr. Ruckelshaus is right those problems could not be solved by federal or state regulation. The states need to address these non-point sources using other approaches. Reductions in discharge of contaminants can be achieved through the implementation of “agricultural best management practices” operations and good environmental stewardship practices; however there is building support for direct control of non-point source contaminants and control of water supplies. The suggestions for regulation made by advocacy groups are invasive and far reaching including ownership of the water itself. This will never work. A citizen collaboration between farmers and citizens needs to be created that will encourage and enable prosperous farms, safe drinking water, healthy fish and estuaries and sustainable development. These collaborations are slow to form and function and must begin with knowledge.

Water regulation movements are moving quickly, but they are of the command-and-control variety. Virginia is one of the 40 states with water ownership always assumed to pass with the land. Water is wealth and having the government assume control of water allocations either in a permitting process or direct allocation is frightening, but that is what is happening. The Virginia Ground Water Management Act of 1992 mandates the regulation of large groundwater withdrawals in certain portions of the Commonwealth to prevent adverse impacts due to over utilization of the resource. In the past year there were two proposed changes to the regulations. It was proposed that the Eastern Virginia Ground Water Management Area be expanded to include area beyond the eastern shore and even the confines of the Tidewater, west of the fall zone, into other groundwater basins. The second proposed change was ambiguous and seemingly ambitious in its reach: the Board and DEQ propose “to consider amending the Ground Water Withdrawal Regulation, 9 VAC 25 610 to address the increasing demand on limited groundwater resources, changes to the administrative review process, and regulatory changes necessitated by new information on the coastal plain aquifer system.” Towards that goal the Commonwealth is forming a State Water Plan Advisory Committee without any citizenship/landowner representation. Who is going to control your water?

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