WASHINGTON -- For the first time, a federal judge has upheld the
Environmental Protection Agency's longstanding interpretation and practice that
the EPA and states have the authority to identify which U.S. waterways are
polluted by runoff from urban areas, agriculture and timber harvesting -- "nonpoint
sources" of pollution -- and to identify the maximum amount of pollutants
that may enter these waterways.
"This important decision allows us to build on our successes of completing
task of cleaning our nation's waters," said EPA Administrator Carol
Browner. "The Clinton-Gore Administration has made delivering clean, safe
water to all Americans a priority in our efforts to ensure greater protection
for the environment in communities across the country."
The March 30 opinion by U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco
affirms the comprehensive scope of the Clean Water Act's Total maximum Daily
Load program. In the first decision to squarely address the issue, Judge Alsup
found that Congress intended to include nonpoint source pollution in the Clean
Water Act's water quality standards program, and he noted that nonpoint source
pollution currently is the dominant water quality problem in the United States.
"The court has affirmed a strong tool for restoring America's rivers and
cleaning up pollution, regardless of its source," said Lois Schiffer,
assistant attorney general for the Environment Division of the Justice
The court heard a challenge to an EPA decision to put the Garcia River on a list
of impaired waterways in California and define the amount of sediment that
should be allowed to enter the river from land along its banks. Although salmon
and steelhead once flourished in the Garcia River, excessive sediment from
forestry operations now prevents the river from supporting healthy fish. In
March 1998, the EPA developed a "total maximum daily load" (TMDL) for
sediment for the river. A TMDL defines the greatest amount of a particular
pollutant that can be introduced into a waterway without exceeding the river's
water quality standard. The agency also defined the reductions in sediment that
are necessary for the river to attain the water quality standard set by the
State of California.
The American Farm Bureau Federation and other agriculture and timber groups
filed suit, claiming that the EPA and the states should calculate TMDLs only for
pollutants that are discharged from pipes, or point sources. The court rejected
this argument, holding that the Clean Water Act is designed to provide a
comprehensive solution to the nation's water quality problems, "without
regard to the sources of pollution."
In California, only 1% of impaired waterways fail to meet water quality
standards solely because of pollution that comes from pipes, municipal waste
treatment works, or other point sources. According to EPA, 54% of California's
impaired waterways are polluted by nonpoint sources exclusively, while another
45% are impaired by a combination of point and nonpoint sources.