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A Story of Groundwater Source Protection in the Mid-Atlantic

Authored by Mark Eisner | April 6, 2021

For years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has regulated community groundwater supplies. Through the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the EPA sets and regulates maximum allowable contaminant levels (MCLs) for various specific constituents of drinking water. The EPA and the various states established guidelines to help local jurisdictions wisely plan land use near community groundwater sources. The concept of such land use plans and restrictions came to be called “wellhead protection” (and later, “source water protection”) and some of the tools that the EPA encouraged public groundwater suppliers to consider included zoning restrictions and ordinances.

Source water protection guidance was well-intended, but implementation faced many political, sociologic and economic hurdles. The most common approach involved restriction or prohibition of a land use (such as a gasoline station or dry cleaners) deemed incompatible with groundwater quality protection. Such businesses could face costly requirements for approval and/or continued operation; many found compliance to be economically onerous. The economic power and political connectedness of business and property owners faced with such costs came to discourage many public groundwater suppliers from implementing effective protection. A more nuanced approach was needed.

EPA and the various States provide a “model ordinance” which is a blueprint for how municipalities may take an “ordinance” or prescriptive approach to implementing source water protection. Generally, public works officials support such approaches, but in the end, fears about effects on business interests dominate, so groundwater protection ordinances rarely are enacted. All too often, nothing happens in the way of protection and the risk posed by incompatible land usage remains unmitigated.

Intuitively balanced professional guidance to public groundwater suppliers often helps achieve effective implementation, if sometimes less restrictive than science alone might suggest. In the Mid-Atlantic region for example, B&L helps our public sector clients achieve effective source water protection through a nuanced balance between optimal restriction recommendations and the wise consideration of their ancillary benefit-cost ratio. Customized implementation measures then are tailored to the specific hydrogeological setting, risk tolerance and political climate of the benefiting entity. Often through candid and forthright public workshops and community outreach, water systems come to achieve the broad consensus needed for effective implementation that otherwise remains elusive through purely prescriptive approaches.

Sometimes the best groundwater source protection is achieved through out-of-the-box thinking. One recent municipal client became concerned about a shopping center proposed for development near its only wellfield. The property was situated outside of City boundaries, so a local ordinance would not limit the risk posed by tenant businesses engaged in hazardous and/or regulated liquids releases and discharges. Following our finding that the best protection would be achieved if the proposed shopping center was never developed, the City acquired the proposed shopping center site to keep it safe from environmentally impactful development.

Learn more about our Geoscience Services, or contact our Mid-Atlantic Environmental Practice Area Leader Mark W. Eisner, P.G. for more information.


This article is from members of the Environmental Practice Area.

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