Exchange of Experience in Watershed Management Between The Environmental Protection Delegation of Yunnan Province and USA and Canada

Release time:2017-06-13

Watershed management is determined by the natural characteristics of water resources, is one of the most important parts of water management system, and is a well-recognized water resources management model universally. In 2016, The National Development and Reform Commission of China (NDRCC) issued the "Thirteenth Five-year Plan of Water Environment Comprehensive Management for Key River Basins," allowing  "Water Pollution Prevention Action Plan" (“Water Ten”) to be fully implemented on basins.

On March 14-16, 2017, the International Fund for China's Environment (IFCE) organized the delegation of Yunnan Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to visit watershed management agencies in United States and Canada, aiming to conduct international exchanges on watershed management. Lan Jun (Deputy Director of Yunnan EPA), Chen Li (Director of Policy and Regulation Department of Yunnan EPA), Guan Qiong (Director of Lake Department of Yunnan EPA), Guan Minghong (Director of Yunnan Lijiang City EPA) and Li Xing (IFCE Project manager) attended the visit. The visit includes Cheshire Chesapeake Bay Program Office, EPA Region 5 Water Division, EPA Great Lakes National Program Office and WWF-Canada Freshwater Program.

The topics of this visit include watershed management models of cross-administrative regions, pollutant discharge permit system, non-point source pollution management and control methods, water eutrophication pollution control factors, the coordination between regional development and watershed protection.

During the visit, Lan Jun introduced the basic facts of the plateau lake management in Yunnan Province to the representatives from the United States and Canada. The lakes in Yunnan Province belong to the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau lake area, which is one of the five Great Lakes in China. The lakes in Yunnan Province have three characteristics. First, specificity: the plateau lake group, formed by the evolution of Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, is the unique rift lake concentrating distribution group in the world. Second, diversity: the difference between deep lake and shallow lake, the eutrophication process, materials importing process in the watersheds, and ecological structures. Third, complexity: water pollution presents the basin-wide, compound, structural and long-term characteristics.
       At present, to manage the "nine lakes" (Dianchi Lake, Erhai Lake, Fuxian Lake, Chenghai, Lugu Lake, Yangzong Hai, Xingyun Lake, Qilu Lake, Yilong Lake) in Yunnan Province, the Government adopted a "one lake one policy" management method. Take Dianchi Lake as an example, due to the high population density of the city, the pollution load of Dianchi Lake is much beyond the environmental capacity, resulting in the water eutrophication phenomenon. On the problem of Dianchi Lake, the government follows the administrative ideas of engineering measures and managerial measures together, endogenous and exogenous co-governance, and stock and increments reduction. The specific practices include six major projects: sewage interception around the lake and traffic engineering, agricultural and rural non-point source management project; into-lake river channels management project; outside watershed water diversion and water saving projects; ecological construction projects and ecological dredging project.

Lanjun stressed that although the management of the nine rivers in Yunnan Province has achieved initial success, there are still many difficulties and challenges. First, it is hard to control the governing space of Erhai, Fuxian Lake, Lugu Lake and Yang Zonghai, to implement the preventive and protective measures, causing the contradictions between conservation and development. Second, pollution load is surpassing the environmental capacity, and the problem of non-point source pollution is extreme, especially the problem in controlling the rainy season pollution formed by impact loads. Third, Chenghai, Qilu Lake, Yilong Lake are facing water shortage. Fourth, Dianchi Grass Sea, Yilong Lake and Xingyun Lake are facing grass - algae mutual transformation problem. Fifth, contradicts exist in Dianchi Lake and Xingyun Lake’s algae pollution control factors.

On March 14th, the delegation first visited the Chesapeake Bay Program Office. Chesapeake Bay is an estuary lying inland from Atlantic Ocean, with a basin area of 64200 square miles (166534 square kilometers). The bay has more than 150 dry tributaries, covering six states of the United States (New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia) and Washington DC Area. Suffering from the serious pollution in the seventies, Chesapeake Bay has been almost restored after 30-year management. Chesapeake Bay is one of the most successful water environment governance cases in the United States and has many successful experiences for our reference.

Mr. Ning Zhou, the director of the Sewage Research Working Group at the Chesapeake Bay Project, shared with the delegation the two major successful factors in the Chesapeake Bay Basin Management: Effective Governing Body and Consistent Scientific Management.

After the Chesapeake Bay project was approved by the Congress, a strong governing group was established - the Chesapeake Bay Remediation Executive Committee. The Executive Committee was consisted of director of EPA, governors of the six states and director of Watershed Committee. The Executive Committee mainly makes decisions on the major policies and measures of the remediation work, signs joint action agreements, and gives strong leadership and support in practical work. The Executive Committee meets annually to review project progresses and to sum up experience in order to determine the next-step direction and policy measures.

The most representative management tool in Chesapeake Bay is the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). It is a comprehensive "pollution control", developed by the Federal EPA on December 29, 2010, and is the largest TMDL in the US. Chesapeake Bay TMDL is designed to ensure that all pollution control measures required for the Bay Area and its tidal rivers are fully restored by 2025. Chesapeake Bay TMDL determines the total amount of contaminants (nitrogen, phosphorus, sediments) that water bodies can accept and still meet water quality standards. Each states then can allocate their total pollution to the various sources of pollution emissions, achieving scientific and effective pollution control.

TMDL controls all sources of contamination, including point and non-point sources. TMDL has a very specific control of the pollution source. The point source can be specific to each household that has not yet connected to the sewage pipeline, while the non-point source can be specific to the cleaning frequency of city road. The specific water quality standards of TMDL and the total pollution allocations need to be calculated by hydrological and hydraulic models, which also rely on a large number of water quality and hydrological data to establish and calibrate.  Therefore, developing TMDL has an extremely heavy workload. It took Chesapeake Bay nearly 30 years to complete the establishment of TMDL for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments in the whole bay area.

Based on the TMDL, the US federal government demands six states’ governments to develop their own Watershed Implementation Plan, including the use of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) to control point sources Pollution. The US Federal Clean Water Act prohibits anyone from discharging the pollutants into the water body through a "point source," unless they have a NPDES license. The license will contain the limits on emissions, the requirements of monitoring and reporting, and other requirements. In addition to the control of domestic sewage and industrial wastewater as point sources, NPDES also manages three types of rainwater discharging sources: municipal independent rainwater sewer system (MS4), construction activities and industrial activities.

 On March 15, the delegation went to Chicago to visit the EPA Region 5 Water Division and the US Federal EPA Great Lakes National Program Office. The Water Division primarily supports various water plans and actions within the Great Lakes, six jurisdictions and 35 tribes. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office is responsible for coordinating a series of action measures to restore and protect the ecosystem integrity of the Great Lakes basin, based on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement signed by the United States and Canada.

Mr. Peter Swenson, the Director of Watershed and Wetlands of EPA Region 5 Water Division, first introduced the water quality of the Great Lakes watershed. Within the assessed area of the Great Lakes basin, 52% of rivers and 68% of the lakes are still in a polluted state, and the most important issues are water eutrophication and algal phytotoxin. Subsequently, Ms. Meghan Hemken, an expert from the Water Quality Standards Division, presented the establishments of US water quality standards. The US federal water quality standards consist of three parts: designated use, water quality benchmark, anti-degradation mechanism. The federal does not have a uniform water quality standard, and specific standards need to be tailored to local conditions. In the Great Lake watersheds, the eutrophic matter standards include causal variables (nitrogen and phosphorus) and response variables (Chlorophyll a and transparency). The value of each variable depends on the designated use of the water and the local ecological conditions (including land cover, geology, size, etc.). For cyanide toxins released by algae, the US Federal EPA develops a proposed standard for different uses, such as the proposed microcystin concentration in water body suitable for swimming should not exceed 4μg /l.

The delegation had a further discussion with the US experts about the control factors of eutrophication and the coordination between regional development and watersheds protection.

With regard to water eutrophication control factors, US experts generally believe that phosphorus is the main pollutant to cause water eutrophication in the inland lake while nitrogen is the main pollutant in the watershed near the sea. Phosphorus is the factor for algal outbreak. Nitrogen affects algae species, and also induces algae to release cyano toxins. Nitrogen has a greater contribution on seasonal algal outbreaks.

With regard to the coordination between regional development and watershed protection, the Deputy Director Lan Jun says that China's water quality standards also include the requirement of "water quality should not be lower than the status quo", which is similar to the anti-degradation mechanism in the U.S. standard. However, some areas that have not been impacted by human activities need to be developed, and to balance regional development and water anti-degradation is quite difficult. U.S. experts express that the US government also faces the problem of balancing between development and protection. The US designates some of the unexploited water body as “Outstanding resource water body” and prohibits any human activities that could cause potential pollution. When the state government defines the intended use of water, not all the undeveloped water bodies are defined as "Outstanding resource water body." The state government may consider the potentials and needs of the local development, and designates their use as “swimming” or  “fishing” accordingly. Thus, the standard is not too strict, and can be moderately exploited on the basis of their intended use. However, it is important to emphasize that once the specified use of the water body is determined, it will not be altered and must be strictly followed.

Ms. Santina Wortman, the expert from the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, takes the Lake Erie as an example to introduce the phosphorus load discharging reduction action. Water eutrophication in Lake Erie is the most serious among five Great Lakes. Since the 1990s, Lake Erie has experienced algae outbreaks every summer. The most serious outbreak happened in 2014: algal toxins resulted in the shutdown of drinking water treatment plant in Ontario, Ohio and Toledo Island, and influenced the 500,000 residents. The two major factors that contribute to eutrophication of Lake Erie are: the low depth of the lake (average depth of 19 meters) and agricultural non-point source pollution (60-80% of the nearby land is used for agriculture).

Although there is no TMDL in the Great Lakes basin, under the guidance of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement signed by the United States and Canada, the expert team from the Great Lakes National Project Office also insists on scientific pollution load control research. Based on the long-term point source and non-point source phosphorus load records, the expert team applied multiple models to correlate the phosphorus load to the eutrophication reaction, and calculated the recommended phosphorus load target, in order to achieve the desired lake ecosystem objectives.

With regard to the specific measures to control phosphorus emissions, Santina proposed a "multi-barrier systematic management" approach. This approach requires not only the control of phosphorus application at the source, such as regulating the phosphorus in the detergent, limiting the use of fertilizers on the freezing or snow-covered ground, developing and promoting the best management tools for agriculture, but also the need to prevent the flushing of phosphorus applied  in the land into rivers, such as the use of highly permeable pavement materials and the construction of riverbank wetlands.

It is worth noting that, for agricultural non-point source pollution, the law does not authorize the US federal government with the power to take compulsory control measures on farmers, but more dependents on the voluntary behavior of polluters. Therefore, the Federal EPA uses the managerial approach which mainly relies on guiding and is supplemented by financial support. Ms. Janette Marsh, expert from the the EPA Region 5 Water Division, and Mr. William Spaulding, Groundwater and Drinking Water Specialist, presented the voluntary watershed planning and management approach and the watershed management approach from the perspective of protecting the drinking water sources. Both experts say that, whether the water conservation would succeed or fail depends on the cooperation between the federal and state governments, as well as the coordination between national defense, environmental protection, agriculture, housing, transportation, health and other government departments.

On March 16, the delegation arrived in Toronto and visited the WWF-Canada Freshwater Program. The WWF-Canada Freshwater Program is the first freshwater conservation program in the world, dedicating to protect the 25 major watersheds in Canada. The program is expecting to achieve all the goals of the healthy water ecology by 2025.

Elizabeth Hendriks, Deputy Director of WWF-Canada Freshwater Program, introduced two main tasks of the project: releasing watershed reports and assisting the community residents to carry out pollution control action. WWF's watershed report covers two major assessments: Freshwater Threat Assessment (FTA) and Freshwater Health Assessment (FHA). FHA provides a watershed assessment of the status quo, and FTA reflects the impact of human activities on aquatic habitat. The watershed report will serve as a reference for the government to make decisions, and at the same time, provide guidance of practical projects for freshwater protection.

Anthony Merante, the expert from the Freshwater Conservation Project Watershed Reporting Department, suggested that the deicing salt is a "new" pollutant in the Great Lakes. Due to the large amount of snowfall during winter times in Canada, deicing salt is overused. The chloride (NaCl, CaCl2, MgCl2) in the salt applied on the road may interfere regulation of respiration, ion regulation and hydration ability of many freshwater species. Freshwater conservation projects are organizing the residents and governments in southern Ontario to participate in salt reduction programs, to change the attitude and behavior of overuse of salt and reduce the flow of harmful chlorides into the Great Lakes.

Heather Crochetiere, expert from the freshwater conservation projects, described how the project team assisted the community residents to launch the pollution control plan, including the establishment of community-based freshwater protection networks to promote the information sharing and the cooperation between the communities. In addition, WWF has established the Loblaw Freshwater Conservation Fund, which uses funds from social and corporate donations to reward and support the excellent freshwater protection operations nationwide.

The delegation had a further discussion with Canadian experts on cross-regional watershed management. Ms. Hendriks said that, although Canada has more stringent measures on agricultural non-point source pollution than the United States, including more stringent standards for the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and a more rational agricultural land use planning achieved by restricting the distance between farmland and agricultural product outlets, their efforts on the Great Lakes water quality improvement is not obvious, due to the fact that Canada contribute to less than 5% of the Great Lakes pollution. Lan Jun maintained that it was the key point in the cross-regional watershed management to assign the weight of contribution of each polluter to the watersheds.

This visit facilitated the exchanges of the watershed management between China and the United States and Canada. Although the present economic development and environmental protection in these three countries are at different stages, and many methods can neither be simply compared, nor can be directly copied, the experience and practices from the United States and Canada in the watershed management system construction, scientific research and citizen participation are still worth learning and to use as a future reference.

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