To TMDL or To TMDon’t?

Anna Reh- Gingerich is a 2nd year Masters student in the Coastal and Ocean Graduate Program at UNCW. She graduated with a B.S. in Zoology with a Marine Biology concentration from Michigan State University in 2013. She is currently working as the Education and Outreach intern for the City of Wilmington's Stormwater Services.  She has always been drawn to water (thanks to a close proximity to the Great Lakes) and coastal ecosystems, mainly wetlands. Anna enjoy getting others excited about nature, wildlife, and our coastal resources and hopes to continue her involvement with community outreach related to coastal management issues. 

“’Tis a lesson you should heed: Try, try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try, try again.”
 – William Edward Hickson

Nancy Drew was one of my heroines while I was growing up. Her determination to get to the bottom of a case was inspiring and for a short while, I wanted to be a detective just like her. Fast forward about fifteen years and suddenly, I have my chance to be “On the case!”. But instead of secret staircases or old clocks, my search for answers falls within an area my ten-year-old self would never have imagined: pollution legislation.

Even though it may not seem as dreamy as dramatized detective work, investigating problems with established legislation is more common than you think. It often takes review, discussion, revision, re-revision, and then more review to work out the kinks. In our imperfect and dynamic world, the review process never truly ends (or so I hope).

My area of focus recently is nonpoint source pollution in developing areas along the coast, i.e. any pollution whose source cannot be “pointed” out. While it sometimes makes me question whether or not I really want to swim in that section of the beach, there is a lot of value in keeping people informed about where pollution comes from and what they can do to help. As I frantically searched for a capstone project, I tried to focus on ways of curbing nonpoint source pollution, how we can keep shellfish beds open, strategies to reduce swimming advisories, etc.

But something kept nagging at me. We have all of these waterbodies that are “unusable” and lots of legislation detailing how to get back to safe pollution standards: so why hasn’t much changed?

And then I found something intriguing. A clue, you might say. A small article about loose legislation regarding water quality. Specifically the success of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program as set by the Clean Water Act.  A blog cited a United States Government Accountability Office (US GAO) report regarding TMDLs... and further down the rabbit hole I went.

To make complicated legislation short, TMDLs are water quality reduction plans states are required to compile in order to bring down unsafe contamination levels in waterbodies that have been classified as “unusable."  Specifically,
“Each state shall establish for the waters identified…the total maximum daily load, for those pollutants which the Administrator identifies…as suitable for such calculation. Such load shall be established at a level necessary to implement the applicable water quality standards with seasonal variations and a margin of safety which takes into account any lack of knowledge concerning the relationship between effluent limitations and water quality”
On paper, it’s great: target the specific pollutants contaminating the waterbodies, reduce the amount entering the waterbody by a certain amount, and continue to review and adapt until water quality improves. Sound easy on paper? Yep. Actually easy to put implement? Not really.  

The U.S. GAO examined a sample of 25 long-standing TMDLs that had been reviewed and approved by the US EPA. Some of the summary results were slightly alarming:
  • 18/25 included evidence for the target pollutant(s)
  • 7/25 provided evidence that reductions would help meet standards
  • 13/25 had adequate information about implementation
  • 7/25 did not have a monitoring plan
    • 8/18 of those that did had no details about how to adapt to the plan

You could say TMDL officials should take a page out one of Miss Drew’s books and gather more evidence for their arguments.

These statistics don’t even scratch the surface regarding the lack of information regarding TMDL production and review. The communication between state and federal regulators is strained, leading to gaps in information at state and local levels. These include lack of knowledge about TMDL development, no implementation plans, and no monitoring. The lack of available funding for states to produce the reports has not helped these problems.

If major legislation detailing methods for water quality improvements is subject to shortcuts, then I think it’s worth investigating how it can be solidified. I’m also going to look into possible funding options to help lift some of the burden off of the states.  

I don’t expect to hit the point of “Case Closed!” in a semester, but I do hope to educate/remind others about the importance of reviewing key legislation.

References for this post:


  1. Relevant local case exists right here in our back yard. The Cape Fear River Estuary has long failed to meet its dissolved oxygen (DO) standards owing to a combination of point and non-point sources of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD). The regulated point source dischargers argue that TMDL modeling shows that even if they halted all BOD discharges, the DO standards would still fail owing to non-point issues, which they claim to be naturally low DO swamp water inputs into the river. Their strategy is to avoid the TMDL route by reclassifying the estuary to 'C-swamp' (it's currently class 'C'). So another aspect of this TMDL battle is such attempts to avoid TMDLs by reclassification to lower standards.

    1. Thank you for the local example, Dr. Cahoon! I've recently discovered that the more research I do on TMDLs, the stickier the situation becomes. I'll be sure to include this in my review of the system as yet another shortfall. And I have a feeling it won't be the last one I add, either...


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