A recently completed Idaho fish-consumption survey that’s part of a state process to set new water quality standards could mean greater restrictions for towns and businesses that have sewage permits.
The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality released the 92-page survey on July 8 as part of a process that started after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected the state’s current standards in 2012. The federal agency says it’s not convinced the levels set by the state in 2005 protect human health.
Don Essig, a scientist and water quality standards manager with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said the survey is part of an equation used to determine acceptable amounts of 88 toxins the EPA disapproved in Idaho’s current plan. The toxins can accumulate in fish and other aquatic organisms, such as crawfish, that are then caught and eaten by humans.
“That’s why fish consumption is an important part of this,” Essig said. “It magnifies the exposure due to fish.”
The new standards are likely to be more stringent than the current standards, Essig said. The survey of fish consumption has yet to factor in results from the Nez Perce Tribe in northern Idaho and Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in eastern Idaho. Surveys for the tribes haven’t been submitted. When that happens, Essig said, the fish consumption amount used to help set water quality standards will likely exceed the number used by the state in 2005. That would suggest more stringent water quality standards, he said.
The revision of Idaho’s water quality standards was prompted by legal skirmishes between the Idaho Conservation League and the EPA, leading to a lawsuit filed by the environmental group in federal court in 2012. An agreement in 2013 set deadlines for completing the process.
“Our hope in pushing this fish-consumption issue is that Idaho and EPA would try to protect the most vulnerable populations in Idaho,” said Bryan Hurlbutt, an attorney with Advocates for the West representing the Idaho Conservation League.
The survey isn’t intended to sway fish eating habits, but instead help set water quality standards. Other factors include the level of toxicity of various compounds as well as how rapidly they accumulate in aquatic species.
Because of the potential increased costs for business to meet stricter standards, the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry has been an active participant in the public process.
The standards “have to be based on science,” said the group’s president, Alex LaBeau. “And most of all it has to be put in a way where we can actually achieve those standards.”
Idahoans for Sensible Water Regulations, which represents businesses and agriculture, and works with municipalities, has also been active.
Water quality standards “are going to be more strict, and they probably should be,” the group’s director, Brent Olmstead, said. “But the cost factor can create greater problems. All our members want clean water — they drink the water, they live in the state — but they do want to stay in business.”
Municipalities would likely be hit the hardest by stricter standards, with increased expenses being passed to ratepayers, Olmstead said.
Idaho officials plan to release new proposed water quality standards in August, followed by a public comment period. The next step is for Idaho lawmakers in the 2016 Legislative session to approve the new rules. In May 2016, the plan would be sent to the EPA for its approval.
If Idaho lawmakers don’t approve a new plan, or if the plan fails to win approval from the EPA, federal officials could step in to set Idaho’s water quality standards under the Clean Water Act.