Water Resources Program (part of Soil, Water and Air)
Water of sufficient quality and quantity is integral to the successful management of the National System of Public Lands. The quality of water generated on public lands is just as important as the quantity, for clean water is a necessary resource both for mankind’s uses and ecosystem sustainability.
The BLM is required to comply with the provisions of the Clean Water Act. Section 313 of the CWA states that each federal department and agency having jurisdiction over any property or facility or engaged in any activity that may result in the discharge or runoff of pollutants is subject to, and must comply with, all Federal and State requirements and administrative authority respecting the control and abatement of water pollution in the same manner, and to the same extent, as any nongovernmental entity. EPA has delegated the establishment and enforcement of water quality standards (WQS) to the States. Therefore, the BLM is required to meet the WQS of each State in which it administers public lands.
This requirement to meet State WQS is established in BLM regulations and guidance. Policy guidance given in the BLM Water Quality Manual (M-7240) is to manage water quality on BLM-administered lands so that the “quality can meet both Federal and State standards.” The Department of the Interior’s long-term, outcome-oriented goals and objectives, which are incorporated into the BLM Operating Plan, include goals for the percent of surface water miles of streams and percent of surface water acres of lakes managed “that meet State (EPA approved) Water Quality Standards.” An EPA-approved WQS is defined as any WQS adopted by any State and submitted to, and approved by the EPA Administrator pursuant to the Clean Water Act.
What role does the BLM have in protecting water resources?
Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) sets forth the fundamental policy of managing the land for multiple-use while preserving the sustainable yield of its renewable resources. To achieve this goal, it is necessary for the BLM to adopt a strategic approach to protecting water resources. This approach addresses current water quality issues and proactively prevents future issues resulting for authorized land management decisions through the use of best management practices and stipulations (preventative measures). This approach will require the BLM to have the best available science to determine previous impact to water resources from management decision to develop and apply preventive measures. This cannot be accomplished at the expense of other programs or projects but rather can only be effectively achieved through integration and coordination.
How is water affected by land use activities?
Water that precipitates to the ground as rain or snow is transformed by several hydrological processes into runoff, streamflow, and groundwater. The vast acreage of public lands generates substantial surface runoff and stores large volumes of groundwater. The land-use activities that BLM permits on this vast acreage have a direct effect on the quality and quantity of the water generated from it. Because water is in short supply throughout much of the West where BLM is the major land management agency, waters derived from the National System of Public Lands are a valuable natural resource.
What is the role of the Water Resource program in protecting the water resources of the public lands?
The Water Resource (WR) program, part of the Bureau’s Soil, Water, and Air (SWA) program, has the lead responsibility for establishing the water quality, water rights, and surface and groundwater policy needs of the BLM. The SWA program has the lead responsibility associated with management, development, and protection of the soil, water, and air resources related to the Public Lands (excluding riparian resources). Program activities include planning, soil surveys and watershed assessment, water source quantification and filings, monitoring soil, water, air and climate resources, and watershed project development and maintenance.
Is the Water Resource program the only program with responsibility for water quality on public lands?
No. All BLM activities and programs must comply with water quality laws and regulations, preventing pollutants from contaminating waters. However, the WR program leads efforts at assessing and restoring water quality conditions on public lands. These activities include water quality measurement, remediation of water bodies not meeting State water quality standards, implementation of BMPs to improve water quality, contracting with laboratories for analyses, and data interpretation and management.
Don’t the States and the EPA–not the BLM–have the responsible for managing water resources, including improving and protecting water quality?
The federal Clean Water Act (CWA) outlines the overall process “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” and establishes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the primary federal agency with responsibility for implementing the CWA. However, the EPA delegates many of the CWA responsibilities to the States, which then have major roles in regulating water quality within their borders. Regarding the responsibilities of other federal agencies, Section 313 of the CWA is explicit: they “shall be subject to, and comply with, all Federal, State, interstate, and local requirements, administrative authority, and process and sanctions respecting the control and abatement of water pollution in the same manner, and to the same extent as any nongovernmental entity.” Also, as mentioned above, FLPMA speaks to BLM’s role in preventing pollution and maintaining water quality, including a provision that land use plans must plans must provide for compliance with applicable pollution control laws, including State and Federal water pollution standards.
What water quality issues does the BLM have?
The quality of the waters both underground and flowing across public lands is affected both by natural conditions and human influences. The major water quality concerns on public lands are:
- Sediment, from accelerated erosion, resulting from grazing, roads, recreation, and other activities.
- Metals contaminants and acidity, generated by abandoned mine land (AML) sites.
- Bacterial and viral pathogens, where recreation or grazing contaminate waters.
- Hydrocarbons, generated by petroleum production activities.
- Thermal pollution, resultant from poor riparian shade conditions.
- Salinity, due to arid western conditions, accelerated erosion, and energy development.
What are the specific BLM water quality goals?
Water quality goals for the BLM have been established by the Department of the Interior in its Strategic Plan, with these goals incorporated into the BLM Operating Plan as performance measures. The BLM 2007-2012 Operating Plan has goals for the “percent of surface water miles of streams” and “percent of surface water acres of lakes managed” that meet State (EPA approved) Water Quality Standards. The goal percentages rise yearly and for 2012 are set at 88 percent for surface water acres and 92 percent for surface water miles.
What actions is BLM taking to restore water quality and meet its water quality goals?
The types of actions being taken are as varied as the contaminants and their causes. At AML sites, actions have included plugging mine bulkheads to prevent the outflow of contaminated water to treating acid waters using bio-reactors before their release to the environment. Certain recreation activities and grazing are restricted in near-stream areas to provide buffers for filtering potential contaminants. In the Pacific Northwest, thermal pollution and excessive sedimentation affecting the salmonid fisheries is being addressed by providing stream buffers and improving riparian conditions. Indeed, many SWA watershed actions are multifaceted, aimed at restoring overall watershed integrity, including rangeland conditions, habitat, hydrologic function, and water quality.
Does the BLM have partners in maintaining and restoring water quality?
Yes. The BLM partners with many other federal, state, and local agencies, watershed stakeholder groups, and private organizations to improve and restore water quality. The Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program works with a variety of partners, including the Colorado River Basin Salinity Forum to fund projects that reduce salinity and improve water quality in the Colorado River. In the State of Utah, BLM collects water samples which are analyzed by the State water quality agency and incorporated into the State’s web-accessible database. In Colorado, the BLM jointly funds AML projects that result in water quality improvement, and BLM is a partner in several watershed stakeholder groups.
Is water quality just as important as water quantity?
Yes! Although a sufficient water supply is essential to satisfy desired uses, the quality of that water must also be adequate to meet those uses. Contaminated water can be made suitable through purification processes, but this option can be costly and often is not feasible for the dispersed water uses associated with public lands, such as wildlife and livestock water supply. Especially in the West where water resources are so limited, protecting water quality and where necessary, improving it, are paramount.