Commentary - July 21st, 2014
1:23 pm
Thu July 24, 2014

A National Water Quality Program Will Only Muddy The Waters

Well, it looks like the Forest Service has done it to themselves again.  By this I mean the recent Federal Register notice announcing the agency is undertaking the writing of national Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Water Quality Protection on National Forest System lands.

For many reasons, a set of national BMP standards is unnecessary, likely costly, and may undermine state and regional programs that have a proven track record of effective water quality monitoring, and it is questionable whether the Forest Service even has the legal authority to proceed with a national program.

Congress enacted the Clean Water Act (CWA) as the primary tool to regulate the discharge of pollution into the nation’s waters.  The Clean Water Act authorizes federal agencies to directly regulate the discharge of pollutants from “point sources,” from which pollutants are or may be discharged.   

The Clean Water Act manages water pollution through Section 303 requiring states develop water quality standards applicable to interstate waters, and submit such standards to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for approval.  Only in situations where a state fails to submit water quality standards does the EPA have the authority to develop standards for a state.  Not the Forest Service.

In 1987, Congress amended the CWA to add Section 319, as mitigation for non-point sources of pollution.  Section 319 directed all states to develop a plan that included a description of the BMPs to be undertaken and identify programs to be used in implementation. 

Section 319 also designated the individual states as the government entity primarily responsible for controlling and managing NPS pollution. As a response, Montana’s legislature passed House Joint Resolution 49, directing the Montana Environmental Quality Council (EQC) to study how forest management practices affected watersheds.  The EQC formed a BMP technical committee, consisting of experts in the field of forestry from MSU Extension Forestry, The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and several applied forest practitioners to develop Montana’s first statewide Forestry BMPs.

In 1989, an interdisciplinary work group released the revised Forestry BMPs, providing guidance in the areas of riparian and wetlands, sediment, streamside management, roads, stream crossings, soil, timber harvest, and reforestation.  Since that time, Montana’s Forestry BMPs have served as compliance with the national CWA and HJR 49.

Critical to the historical success of these practices is the biennial, on-the-ground, audit of harvest activities on federal, state and private forestlands, logger-training courses covering BMPs, the state’s Streamside Management Zone (SMZ) law, and a biennial report to the EQC.

Since water quality varies naturally due to geology, soils, and climate, BMP audit investigators are able to collect a large number of samples, over long periods that can accurately characterize water quality, record trends and proactively develop adaptive management guidance and educational training tools.

Therefore, we are concerned that a set of national BMP standards will only serve to muddy the waters since the Forest Service has failed to explain how its proposed revisions to the Forest Service Manual and Forest Service Handbook comport with the directives of Section 313 of the CWA, which requires all federal agencies comply with existing laws concerning the control and abatement of water pollution. 

Not to mention the cost of compliance.  The Forest Service’s proposal states the National Core BMPs will integrate individual state and Forest Service regional BMPs under one umbrella to facilitate an agency wide BMP monitoring program.  We have not seen a cost-benefit analysis, only an assertion that “This action to clarify Agency direction will not have an annual effect of $100 million or more on the economy, nor will it adversely affect productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health and safety, or State or local governments.”  Everything the Forest Service does affects (in some manner) all of the above.  It is rather puzzling to assert that this new national program won’t.

Those that work and recreate in Montana’s forestlands recognize our headwaters produce both a quantity and quality resource that supports some of the West’s best aquatic and terrestrial habitat and as such, take the management and protection of our precious water resources very seriously.  A National Core BMP is at best a distraction, and at worst may be a costly undermining of over 35 years of effective water quality monitoring and adaptive management.

On behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association, I am Julia Altemus, thanks for listening.