For the past quarter century, clean water programs have sought to make the nation's waters "fishable and swimmable" mainlyby focusing on what comes out of the end of a pipe.

But what comes out of the rear ends of cows, or washes off city streets - or the condition of the streambanks that carry the water - can be as important to fish, swimmers and other water users as anything gushing from a factory or sewage treatment plant.

Recognizing that, a new federal "Clean Water Action Plan" outlines what could be a fundamental shift for the nation's water protection policies, which were originally set forth in the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Declaring that the nation's water policy is at a "crossroads," the plan states that "existing programs will not stop serious new threats to public health, living resources, and the nation's waterways, particularly from polluted runoff."

The original pollution control programs focused on controlling discharges directly into waterways and succeeded in keeping billions of pounds of pollutants out of the nation's water.  Yet even as overall water quality has improved, 40 percent of the nation's water bodies are still impaired by pollution, failing to fully meet the "fishable and swimmable" goal of the 1972 law.

The plan outlines a sweeping vision to "finish the job of restoring rivers, lakes and coastal areas." It takes aim at runoff from farms, suburbs and cities, which has generally received less attention, though it is the leading source of pollution to most of the nation's impaired waters.

It calls for promoting local stewardship of resources, providing grants and technical support to citizens involved in restoration projects, and setting broad resource goals, such as the restoration of more than 100,000 acres of wetlands a year.

All of this is to be woven into a new framework of watershed planning.  Instead of merely controlling chemicals that come out of a pipe, the plan explicitly recognizes that "fishable and swimmable" water also requires protecting the forests, wetlands and stream corridors that support aquatic ecosystems.

"This is the first time that we've clearly tied natural resource stewardship to clean water," said Al Todd, the Forest Service liaison to the Bay Program who worked on developing the plan. "Sustaining healthy natural ecosystems is not just a nice thing to do, it's essential to maintain the water quality that we want."

It also calls for tougher water quality standards - including the first-ever standards for nitrogen and phosphorus, the nutrients which in excess amounts threaten the Bay and other waterways.

The plan stems from a directive from Vice President Al Gore, who marked the 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act last October by ordering the EPA, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies to develop a plan to guide future efforts to clean up waterways.

The resulting plan requires no new legislation to implement, but would substantially boost funding - something that would require congressional action. It calls for spending $568 million on clean water and watershed restoration programs directly related to the program next year, a 35 percent increase over this year. Through 2003, it would boost related spending by $2.3 billion, to a total of $10.5 billion.

"If Congress will approve this request, we will be able to finish the job set out in the Clean Water Act 25 years ago, restoring our waterways and providing clean, safe water to every American," President Clinton said in unveiling the plan near Baltimore Harbor in February.

Much of what the new plan calls for is, in fact, already happening within the Bay watershed. Developing watershed plans, prioritizing areas for action, coordinating state and federal agencies, involving citizens, setting wetland restoration goals - even offering small watershed restoration grants - are all actions under way in the Bay Program.

"The document really is, essentially, taking the Chesapeake Bay Program and extending many of the principles and approaches that have been worked on, tried and piloted here in the Bay region and moving them out on a nationwide scale," Todd said.

But the plan will bring new tools - and potentially more money - to the Chesapeake restoration effort. It would nearly double the amount of money available nationwide to states - to $200 million a year - for runoff control programs.  The plan also calls for states to adopt enforceable runoff control programs by the year 2000 if voluntary efforts fail to adequately curb runoff.

It outlines a new strategy for regulating wastes from large animal feeding operations, which threaten local waterways with large doses of nutrients.

And for the first time, the plan calls for establishing water quality criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus - the two nutrients that have been targeted in the Bay cleanup effort. 

A criteria is a numerical limit on the amount of a particular pollutant that can be in a body of water without causing major adverse effects. Once the federal government establishes criteria, states can adopt them as enforceable water quality standards.

Under the plan, the EPA will establish nutrient criteria by 2000. Because different nutrients, in different amounts, pose different risks to different water bodies, the nutrient criteria will be tailored to individual regions and water bodies, rather than being uniform nationwide.

States will have until 2003 to adopt the criteria as enforceable standards, or the EPA will do it on its own. The standards would be used in setting discharge limits from wastewater treatment plants and in developing stream-specific pollution control strategies required by the Clean Water Act.

While the Bay Program has nutrient reduction goals for nitrogen and phosphorus, and has established water quality "habitat requirements" based on nutrient levels, they do not have the same clout as a standard.

Further, because the criteria will be based on water quality needed for resources such as underwater grass beds, they may be more stringent than existing nutrient reduction goals.

"It will make a difference," said Mike Hirshfield, vice president for resource protection with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "That direction is going to take the Bay cleanup to the next step that people are talking about, which is trying to figure out what the water quality requirements are for a healthy Bay."

As has happened with the Bay Program, the Clean Water Action Plan envisions - mainly through incentives and tinkering with existing federal programs - shifting the focus for water protection to entire watersheds.

Several existing programs are suited to this approach, according to the plan, including those that require state or federal agencies to identify "source" areas of drinking water for protection, define sensitive areas to focus agricultural water protection programs, and identify coastal areas for protection priorities.

In addition, for all stretches of water that do not meet water quality goals, states are already required to develop a "total maximum daily load." A TMDL identifies the total amount of any pollutant, whether it's a toxic, nutrient, sediment or other factor, that a particular water body can receive and still meet its water quality goals. Based on that, water quality managers can allocate the maximum allowable "loads" to different pollution sources.

The new plan calls for approaching all those programs - and more - in a "unified watershed assessment."

By looking at all water-related impacts - from pollution to wetlands - overall watershed strategies can be developed that are "mutually reinforcing."

Based on assessments, states can develop watershed strategies that not only clean the water, but protect wetlands, stream corridors and other important resources, according to the plan. Impaired waterways would have strategies with cleanup actions prioritized based on TMDLs. 

States will work to implement those strategies in the next 2 1/2 years, then draft progress reports by the end of 2000 outlining future actions.

While states would take the lead in developing the watershed assessments, the plan calls for making more federal money and support available to implement the strategies.

Federal "coordinators" will be named for watersheds to help state and local agencies, as well as citizens, identify federal programs that can support restoration efforts. Also, a new nationwide small watershed grants program would aid local efforts working to resolve watershed problems.

Because many of the remaining pollution problems deal with runoff, the plan stresses that watershed strategies need to be developed with public input to help build community-level support for watershed restoration and stewardship efforts.

"Natural resources - croplands, forests, wetlands, rangelands, and riparian areas - are the building blocks of most watersheds," the report said. "The health of the nation's watersheds and the quality of the water is a reflection of how well those natural resources are cared for. Stewardship of natural resources is the fundamental first step toward clean water and
pollution prevention."

While the states would take the lead in developing watershed goals and strategies, the Clean Water Action Plan outlines more than 100 specific federal actions and goals that can help them. To ensure that federal agencies work cooperatively, most of the plan's actions are to be jointly implemented by multiple federal departments.

For example, the EPA requires states to develop TMDLs under the Clean Water Act, but most water quality problems are caused by runoff, largely from agriculture. Agricultural programs are handled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the EPA. By working together, federal agricultural resource protection efforts can be targeted to help implement TMDLs.

The plan, for instance, would increase funding for USDA programs that provide landowners with the financial and technical assistance they need to adopt stewardship techniques that reduce pollution and protect streambanks.  And the plan would help prioritize USDA's commitment to restoring 2 million miles of greenways and buffers to prevent pollution runoff.

Sometimes, adopting new agricultural techniques or technologies to reduce pollution create additional risks for farmers. For example, a farmer using a technology that allows him to more precisely apply his fertilizer - and thereby use less, reducing the potential for runoff - could suffer reduced production if there is bad weather when he planned to apply the fertilizer.  Under the plan, the USDA will work with private insurance companies and foundations to develop programs that help offset such risks.

In addition, the USDA will explore the feasibility of establishing a "Blue Water" marketing program that would identify products produced under sound environmental management guidelines. 

The plan calls for coordinating wetland restoration efforts among agencies to reverse the nation's wetland losses - estimated at about 100,000 acres a year - and instead gain at least 100,000 acres of wetlands annually by 2005. To accomplish this, it says regulatory programs should result in "no overall net losses" and it calls for stepping up the pace of existing wetland restoration programs.

In an effort to make more money available for watershed protection, the plan also seeks to use existing money - such as State Revolving Loan Funds - more creatively. The funds, typically 80 percent funded by the EPA and 20 percent by the states, make more than $2 billion in low interest loans for pollution control efforts each year. 

Typically, the loans finance major projects, such as construction at sewage treatment facilities. The plan seeks to use more revolving loan funds to finance runoff control activities. By 2001, it calls for increasing from the current 3 percent to 10 percent the amount spent for pollution runoff control, or about $200 million a year.

That would help promote creative pollution prevention efforts, such as a recent $110,000 loan from the Ohio fund to The Nature Conservancy to purchase a permanent conservation easement along a creek supporting several endangered mussels.
Septic systems are the third most common source of groundwater contamination and can also cause surface water quality problems. The plan calls for the EPA to develop by next year, voluntary national standards that address siting, performance, design and maintenance of these systems. 

The plan acknowledges that air emissions of nitrogen can also cause pollution problems for areas such as the Chesapeake Bay, where about a quarter of the nitrogen originates from air pollution. The plan says that TMDLs may be used to reduce nitrogen emissions that are affecting a specific waterway. The EPA will develop by spring 1999, a report about how such a TMDL would be developed.

To foster grass-roots stewardship, federal agencies will provide more training and assistance - and information about water quality issues - to citizens. It also wants to promote greater citizen involvement on such things as cleanups and monitoring. It calls on federal agencies to make information about the condition of local water resources more easily available to the public.

"If the clean water program is to make a transition to watershed management, the public must support this effort by getting actively involved in the formation of watershed partnerships," the report says. "As a result, in watershed after watershed, a better informed and more involved public is committed to lasting environmental improvements in their own communities."

Selected Highlights of the Plan

  • Promotes water planning on a watershed basis to both protect natural resources and improve water quality.
  • Increases spending on water programs by more than $2.3 billion over the next 5 years.
  • Establishes water quality criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus that will lead to enforceable water quality standards.
  • Calls for a net gain of at least 100,000 acres of wetlands nationwide each year by 2005.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the EPA will develop a coordinated federal response system to aid state and local areas that are affected by major harmful algae blooms or pfiesteria outbreaks. The two agencies will also support state and local efforts to control runoff that may contribute to such problems.
  • The Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA will expand efforts to restore critical coastal habitats through the beneficial use of dredged materials.
  • States should have enforceable runoff control programs by the year 2000.
  • A small watershed grants program will be established to support watershed protection and restoration efforts at the local level.
  • The EPA will develop guidance by 1999 about how air pollution can be controlled to protect local water quality.