A proposed policy shift that would allow the state Department of Environmental Quality to concentrate more efforts on improving water quality in the highest-priority water bodies in the state is out for public comment.

The state wants to know what the public thinks the criteria should be in prioritizing waterways or segments of waterways for action in the state. Comments are being accepted until May 1.

For more than a decade, DEQ and other states have been under a consent decree issued after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was sued for not forcing states to produce more Total Maximum Daily Load lists of water bodies considered impaired under the Clean Water Act.

These TMDLs are required under the act and must include bodies of water that have one or more water quality criteria — from low dissolved oxygen to mercury contamination — that cause it to be noncompliant.

The TMDL outlines the maximum amount of a particular pollutant that the water body can get and still meet water standards. The limits on pollutants can affect other water discharge permits requested for the body of water.

Under the consent decree, DEQ had to produce a certain number of these lists, which can take several years to complete. Now that Louisiana and other states are moving out from under that decree, the new focus would allow action to be taken more quickly to address problems, DEQ maintains.

Under the new prioritization plan called “DRAFT – Prioritization Framework: A State Plan for Prioritizing Watersheds for Restoration and Protection in Louisiana,” the goal is to allow the state to focus on three to five high-priority water bodies.

For example, if DEQ knows that the cause of a water body impairment is coming from a particular source, the new plan would allow DEQ to move immediately to solve the problem, said Albert Hindrichs, senior environmental scientist with DEQ. Previously, the TMDL would have to be done, which could take a year or two to complete, he said.

“It (the proposed plan) lets us go straight from impairment to implementation,” said Amanda Vincent, environmental scientist manager with DEQ.

Any improvements would be monitored and it’s possible that a TMDL wouldn’t be required if conditions improved enough.

“We’ll be able to go where most is in need of work,” Hindrichs said. “As opposed to ‘You need to do X number of water bodies (in a year).’ ”

Hindrichs said there’s a misunderstanding in the public that if there is no TMDL done for a particular water body, then that means the water quality there is being ignored.

However, he said, water bodies not included in the priority list are still protected through permitting and enforcement actions.

“They’re not going to be ignored,” he said.

Factors to be considered in prioritizing water bodies in the proposed plan include what pollutants are impacting the water body, if a direct source can be identified, the potential for restoration, state and federal partnerships that already exist in a watershed and more.

Comments will be accepted until 4:30 p.m. May 1 by emailing newvision.303d@la.gov.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.