PERSPECTIVES ON THE COASTAL NONPOINT PROGRAM
Sept. 29, 2003 — Coastal waters are very valuable resources. They provide us with food, recreational opportunities, commerce pathways and solace. Coastal waters are home to countless marine species in addition to the majority of the human population. However, 30 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act that set “fishable and swimmable” goals for all navigable waters, many of the coastal bays and estuaries in the United States are still seriously impacted by water pollution. “No Swimming” and “No Fishing” signs still dot many shorelines. Although we have long-standing programs to manage point source pollution — pollutants discharged directly from pipes, such as from a factory or sewage treatment plant — dealing effectively with other types of pollution (i.e., nonpoint source pollution) is only beginning to receive widespread public attention and government support. The recently released “National Coastal Condition Report” indicates that the overall condition of U.S. coastal waters is fair to poor and that 44 percent of estuarine areas are impaired for use by human or aquatic life (EPA, 2001). The NOAA "National Estuarine Eutrophication Assessment" also found similar results with 40 percent of estuaries surveyed in the United States exhibiting highly eutrophic conditions due to nutrient over-enrichment (Bricker et al., 1999). Many of the impairments are caused by everyday activities that occur on the land.
is Nonpoint Source Pollution?
of Nonpoint Source Pollution
Based on the current scientific information, it is clear that controlling nonpoint source pollution to coastal waters is crucial to preserve and restore the quality of estuaries, beaches and oceans. Therefore, NOAA’s management responsibilities for the Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program play a critical role in preventing and reducing polluted runoff to the coastal waters. Despite many successes, the Coastal Nonpoint Program has encountered challenges that require careful consideration of nonpoint source management today and in the future. Future directions of the program and NOAA’s emerging strategy to improve the understanding and control of coastal nonpoint source pollution are discussed below.
of the Coastal Nonpoint Program
Therefore, to address nonpoint source problems within coastal waters more effectively and to ensure coastal states have the tools necessary to address polluted runoff, Congress established the Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program under Section 6217 of the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990. The Coastal Nonpoint Program, jointly administered by NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is unique in that it establishes a set of economically achievable management measures for states to use in controlling polluted runoff. The measures or “best management practices” are designed to control runoff from six main sources: forestry, agriculture, urban areas, marinas, hydromodification (shoreline and stream channel modification) and wetlands and vegetated shorelines (riparian areas). These measures must be backed by state enforceable policies and mechanisms — state authorities that will ensure implementation of the program.
All coastal and Great Lakes states and territories participating in the Coastal Zone Management Program (also administered by NOAA) must develop Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Programs. Of the 34 eligible states and territories, to date, 16 have developed fully approved programs. Several other states are poised to complete their few remaining program requirements this year.
The Coastal Nonpoint Program establishes shared responsibilities for managing coastal water quality problems between state coastal zone management and water quality agencies. As such, the program is not a completely new and separate federal program. Rather, it is designed to combine the strengths of existing programs, providing a comprehensive framework and management approach for coastal nonpoint source pollution.
The Coastal Nonpoint Program focuses on pollution prevention. In other words, the program is designed to minimize the creation of polluted runoff rather than attempting to clean up already contaminated water — a very difficult and expensive process. The program encourages pollution prevention efforts at the local level, especially improvements to land use planning and zoning practices to protect coastal water quality. Land use practices recommended in the Coastal Nonpoint Program management measures include preserving natural vegetation, avoiding development within sensitive habitats and erosion-prone areas and limiting impervious surfaces (such as pavement, decking and roof tops) to the maximum extent practicable.
of the Program
In addition to the many national successes, the program has either been the driving force behind or contributed significantly to the creation or revision of many state statutes, regulations, policies, guidance materials and voluntary programs. Many coastal states have revised or enacted new statutes or regulations addressing storm water management, sediment and erosion control, site development, nutrient management, coastal resource management, sewage disposal and water quality to incorporate the Coastal Nonpoint Management Measures. For example, Virginia amended its Sewage and Handling Regulations to establish an 18-inch vertical separation distance between septic tank drain fields and the water table. Previously, the state only had a two-inch separation distance — not adequate to protect water quality. Several governors, such as Puerto Rico’s, have also signed Executive Orders adopting the management measures as public policy. New state initiatives have been developed to address clean marinas and failing septic systems, provide technical assistance to local governments and develop better tracking and monitoring programs to evaluate progress. The number of state and local guidebooks, BMP manuals, management plans and other technical assistance materials that have been created or updated to include the Coastal Nonpoint Program management measures number in the hundreds. These include Clean Marina Manuals, Sediment and Erosion Control Manuals, Storm Water BMP Guidebooks, Construction Site Chemical Control Manuals, Agriculture and Forestry Practices Manuals, Septic System Operation and Maintenance Guidebooks, Site Design Manuals, model local ordinances, conservation and development plans, and watershed plans.
The Coastal Nonpoint Program continues to evolve to address these challenges. Future program goals include a more targeted use of limited funding, better tracking and reporting of the benefits of the program, and a transition from program development to program implementation and value-added assistance. Recently, NOAA targeted Coastal Nonpoint Program funds toward three identified priority areas: septic systems, clean marinas and coalition building. These areas have a coastal focus and are not often addressed directly through other federally funded nonpoint source programs. By targeting a portion of Coastal Nonpoint Program funds to these priority areas, NOAA and its state and territory partners are filling gaps left by other programs. With input from states and territories, NOAA will regularly reassess funding priorities for the Coastal Nonpoint Program in order to ensure limited funds are always directed to the most needed areas.
By improving the tracking and evaluation of Coastal Nonpoint Program benefits through objective, quantifiable outcomes, NOAA and its partners should be able to demonstrate the accomplishments of the program and provide a basis for comparison with other related efforts. For example, the NOAA Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, in cooperation with the Coastal States Organization (which represents state coastal zone management programs), is in the process of developing national “performance measures” for water quality as one way for the program benefits to be assessed at the state and national level. More specific grant reporting requirements are seen as another way of improving Coastal Nonpoint Program visibility.
Beyond the specific goals of the Coastal Nonpoint Program, NOAA continues to evaluate and coordinate its agency-wide efforts directed toward coastal water quality. Emphasis is being placed on improving understanding of nonpoint source pollution threats and effects to protect resources from further degradation and effectively respond to problems caused by nonpoint source pollution (e.g., harmful algal blooms). NOAA plans to capitalize on its core strengths of scientific research and management facilitation by assuming greater leadership in the areas of coastal water quality research, monitoring, modeling, environmental literacy and linking science to coastal management decision making. Examples of more effective means of managing coastal nonpoint source pollution will continue to be pursued at NOAA sponsored estuarine sites, including the National Estuarine Research Reserves. NOAA also hopes to continue working with state and local partners on site-specific integrated assessments by providing the scientific framework, data integration and coordination needed to ensure the appropriate management actions are implemented in coastal watersheds. At the national scale, NOAA plans on developing a monitoring and assessment program for coastal nonpoint source pollution and producing a national assessment every five years. This data will provide a strong scientific-foundation as NOAA collaborates with state and federal partners on national policies for protecting and restoring estuarine water quality through wise management.
EPA. 2001. National Coastal Condition Report. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Research and Development and Office of Water, Washington, D.C. EPA-620/R-01/005.
NRDC. 2002. Natural Resources Defense Council. Testing the Waters 2002: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches. Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington, D.C.
Pew Oceans Commission. 2003. America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change. A Report to the Nation. May 2003. Pew Oceans Commission, Arlington, Virginia.