Spotlight Stories

MCWRS’s Workshop Discusses the Future of New England’s Rivers
On March 21, MCWRS hosted a free workshop on the future of New England’s rivers at the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission. Coalition members and non-members were invited to learn about these timely topics. Ed Capone, Service Coordination Hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Northeast River Forecast Center (NERFC) presented his work forecasting river flows. The NERFC, one of 13 river forecast centers in the U.S., monitors Massachusetts’s six major river watersheds and works to protect life and property. At NERFC, Mr. Capone and the team calibrate and implement hydrologic and hydraulic models and produce temperature and precipitation forecasts to provide (1) river flow and stage forecasts, (2) guidance on the rainfall needed to produce flash flooding, (3) streamflow predictions, (4) ice jam and dam break support, and (5) water supply and reservoir inflow forecasts.

NOAA studies whole watersheds, and understands that its stakeholders, like the Coalition, are interested in an integrated approach to flooding, water quality, water availability, drought, and climate change, to understand both near- and long-term risks. Mr. Capone reported on observed trends in climate change, such as the increase in amounts and intensity of annual precipitation, warming annual temperatures, and extreme seasonal variations in snowfall that are trending, overall, downward in total amounts. Most notably, intense precipitation events (the heaviest 1%) have increased by 74% in the Northeast, the highest increase in the country. This is reflected in the rise in flooding frequency, especially minor flooding, for smaller watersheds and highly urbanized areas, as well as magnitude. Significant snow storms in the Northeast have also dramatically increased, particularly in the past decade. He explained that the amount of moisture in snow determines the amount of runoff, so a large storm of “dry” snow may have little impact. In terms of Massachusetts’s drought, Mr. Capone explained that drought periods are not uncommon and can happen despite an increase in rainfall.  One of the challenges in managing drought is that the definition can vary by state. He observed that a precipitation deficit may trigger water conservation measures when ground and surface water supplies are actually unaffected.

For Massachusetts and New England, the increase in flooding is related to more slow-moving storms, multiple events in close succession, and a tropical connection. New England’s proximity to Gulf and Atlantic moisture streams and the blocking effects of weather systems to the north play a role, as does even modest changes in ocean and air temperatures that allow the atmosphere to hold more water. The region has been a hotspot for record floods and rainfall over the past 10 years, along with increased yearly rainfall and annual temperatures.

Steven Wolosoff, Senior Environmental Scientist at CDM Smith, discussed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Long Island Sound Nitrogen Reduction Strategy and its impacts in Massachusetts. Mr. Wolosoff explained that the issue is hypoxia, or low dissolved oxygen (DO), in the western portions of Long Island Sound (LIS) in the summer months, which affects bottom dwelling organisms that cannot move away from the area. A 1985 LIS study attributed hypoxia to increases in human wastewater, which led the agency to create a use impairment indicator and hierarchy evaluation system. The 2000 Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study required specific actions, including a 58.5% reduction in nitrogen from in-basin (New York and Connecticut) sources from publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), and created a trading program. It also required that out-of-basin sources from Massachusetts, Vermont, and Canada reduce treatment plant contributions by 25%, nonpoint sources by 10%, and atmospheric deposition by 18%.

Since then, there has been a dramatic reduction of 51.5% in nitrogen contributions from Connecticut and New York WWTPs and the number of days with hypoxia has been reduced. Despite this, in 2015, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment petitioned EPA Regions 1 and 2 to develop a new or amended TMDL, stating that planned actions are not sufficient, climate change will worsen impairments in western LIS, nonpoint source treatment is insufficient, and there is new evidence of embayment impairments. EPA has moved forward with changes, focusing on additional nitrogen removal and addressing embayments Mr. Wolosoff noted that the changes to allowable nitrogen loads amount to a revised TMDL, not a reduction strategy.

Nitrogen sources include atmospheric deposition, wastewater treatment plant effluent, stormwater runoff, septic systems, agricultural runoff, and natural background (or ambient) amounts. EPA’s goal is to reach the natural, pre-colonial levels of nitrogen in LIS, which is not feasible or practical. All out-of-basin sources, including all Massachusetts sources, are already below pre-colonial levels. And, when attenuation is factored in, little benefit is derived from requiring additional controls. He added that the western LIS is most affected by hypoxia, yet Massachusetts’s contribution is to the eastern end. Also, links to local embayments are unclear.  The science indicates that sources in New York and Connecticut immediately adjacent to LIS are the dominant sources of nitrogen and dwarf inputs from other areas of New England. Mr. Wolosoff reviewed lower-cost options for reduction at treatment plants, but noted that stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs) are more cost-effective than changes to WWTPs. The most effective BMPs appear to be yard waste pickup, street sweeping, and catch basin cleaning, which address the largest sources. When monitoring for DO, it’s important to note where samples are taken, as levels vary by depth, and to conduct monitoring before and after measures are implemented. As the Coalition has noted previously, EPA has not engaged with Massachusetts stakeholders on what amounts to a TMDL revision that will significantly impact them.  

You can learn about Nitrogen Trading at the Coalition’s 8th Annual Water Resources Strategies Symposium on May 17 in Marlborough. Stay tuned for future free workshops on other timely and regional topics.

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Gov. Baker Allocates Funding for MassDEP NPDES Staff
On January 25, Governor Baker filed the Fiscal Year 2018 state budget proposal, totaling $40.5 billion. In the budget, the Baker-Polito Administration allocated $1.4 million for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to assume delegated authority of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Specifically, the money would fund 12 MassDEP staff members to begin transitioning the program from EPA to MassDEP. This funding is far from the total amount needed to run the NPDES program effectively (estimated at $6 million), but is a good first step to lay the groundwork and position MassDEP to take over the program.

However, for MassDEP to officially assume authority, Governor Baker must refile the appropriate legislation. This legislation, formerly Bill H.4254, was originally filed in April 2016. MCWRS President Phil Guerin testified at the May 17, 2016 legislative hearing on behalf of the Coalition urging the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture (JENRA) to pass the legislation. Unfortunately, the bill was sent to study in June 2016 and no action was taken. Local environmental advocacy organizations have historically opposed the transition, citing MassDEP’s limited budget and their concern that the agency might be vulnerable to state politics.

Currently, EPA Region 1 administers the program in Massachusetts, while 47 other states manage their own NPDES permitting. The Coalition has advocated for this transfer since 2007 and in January 2016, we penned a position paper outlining our argument for primacy, with key caveats. As
previously reported, this legislation would not remove EPA from the permitting process and MassDEP already has delegated authority for drinking water and air quality permit programs. The Coalition believes that EPA’s one-size-fits-all approach does not consider location-specific environmental, social, and economic factors. MassDEP management of the program would also provide greater opportunity for municipalities to pursue integrated water resources planning. Integrated plans allow communities to address multiple regulatory requirements and infrastructure needs, all while maintaining affordable water and sewer rates.

MCWRS has established a strong working relationship and open lines of communication with MassDEP and will continue to promote municipal interests. The Coalition hopes that MassDEP’s assumption of delegated authority will allow communities to balance environmental protection and fiscal constraints in a cooperative and realistic permitting process. MCWRS intends to support the Governor’s legislation through testimony and meetings with key legislators during the current session. Visit the Coalition’s blog for more details on our history of advocating for primacy.

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MCWRS Jointly Files MS4 Permit Appeal with Town of Franklin
On August 24, MCWRS jointly filed a Petition for Review of the Final Massachusetts Small Municipal Separate Storm Sewer General Permit (MS4) in the First Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals in Boston with the Town of Franklin. The appeal filed by MCWRS and Town of Franklin, along with those filed by Lowell, National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), and CLF, has been transferred to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in Washington, D.C. Upon transfer, the Court consolidated these four appeals with the appeal previously filed in the D.C. Circuit by the Center for Regulatory Reasonableness (CRR). The consolidated appeals are now captioned as Center for Regulatory Reasonableness v. EPA, No. 16-1246 (consolidated with 16-1359, 16-1360, 16-1361, 16-1362). The Court ordered the parties to submit a proposed format for briefing on November 28, 2016 and the parties filed motions on word limits and schedule. MCWRS and Franklin, with Lowell and the NAHB/Home Builders Association of MA (HBAM), filed a Joint Motion to establish a word limit for a joint opening brief. CRR and EPA/CLF filed motions to establish their own word limits, as well as opinions about word limits for the other parties. The Court is expected to rule on the motions soon, and set a briefing schedule.

The Final Permit was issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Region 1, and co-signed by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, on April 4, 2016, and takes effect on July 1, 2017. The MS4 permit regulates municipal stormwater discharges under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program. Read the full press release for complete details on this major announcement.

As our members are well aware, MCWRS has been following this permit since the draft was released in September 2014. In February 2015, MCWRS submitted a comment letter to EPA and our state delegation criticizing various aspects of the draft permit, released in September 2014. Our comments largely centered on the challenging or sometimes impossible costs of compliance, as well as lack of flexibility and other issues. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) also stood up to EPA and raised many of the same concerns as the Coalition.

In EPA’s "Response to Comments" document, you can read the agency's answers to more than 1,300 comments from over 150 individuals and organizations. EPA Region 1 stated that it has addressed all significant issues; however, most of the grave matters of concern to the Coalition and communities have not been modified. The Coalition is disappointed that, once again, EPA Region 1 has chosen not to be responsive to Massachusetts communities’ concerns, and press forward with unsustainable regulatory burdens.

Managing stormwater runoff is necessary to protect or enhance the quality of fresh and salt water bodies, aquatic habitat and drinking water sources. While the MS4 permit requirements may produce some environmental benefits, they will require significant work for and investment from municipal governments. Competing demands and dwindling budgets will make complying with the permit challenging or impossible for many municipalities, opening them up to potential enforcement action by regulators. The new permit also continues to include controversial provisions that conflict with the limited scope of municipal stormwater pollution control required under the Clean Water Act.

Over the last decade, EPA has required cities and towns to maintain tighter control of municipal storm drain systems. MCWRS’s mission includes the protection of municipalities’ interests in an ever changing regulatory environment, and this permit is a prime example of the type of regulatory control that has a direct and substantial impact on our members.

To learn more about the permit, you can visit EPA Region 1’s Draft MS4 Permit page.

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MassDEP Seeks to Take Over NPDES Permit Program
On March 8, 2017, Governor Baker re-filed legislation to delegate authority of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). To aid the transition, Governor Baker also allocated $1.4 million in the FY2018 state budget proposal for MassDEP staff. Everyone benefits from clean water, and the Coalition is excited to share that Governor Baker intends to fund administration of the program through the state budget, including $4.7 million. This legislation, An Act to Enable the Commonwealth's Administration of the Massachusetts Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, was originally filed in April 2016, but the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture (JENRA) sent it to study at the end of the last legislative season, effectively killing it. If passed, the legislation will be part of a submittal made by MassDEP to EPA Region 1.

Since 2007, the Coalition has been advocating for this change, including publishing a White Paper, writing a Position Paper on Primacy, and advising about its benefits and notable caveats through our representation on MassDEP’s NPDES primacy advisory committee. MCWRS President Phil Guerin noted that “having MassDEP manage the NPDES program will benefit communities by providing a perspective that is more attune to local issues and is more consistent with state goals and values.” Read the Coalition’s blog to learn more about this and other timely topics.

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