During the next four years, Louisiana's body politic will have the opportunity to effect watershed reform " literally. This month marks the kickoff of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality's Clean Waters Program, a reworking of current water-monitoring programs to improve the quality of water bodies across the state. Currently, more than three-fourths of all surface waters in Louisiana are considered 'impaired," according to Chris Piehler, director of the state's Clean Waters Program. Piehler says that assessment is based on data collected from local rivers, streams, lakes and bayous; the data are measured against criteria set by the Environmental Protection Agency under the federal Clean Water Act.

The problem of water impairment isn't new. As part of her 2004 environmental agenda, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco tasked DEQ with finding a way to reduce the number of impaired waters across the state. Blanco's goal was to restore 80 impaired water bodies so that they could be fished again and 25 impaired water bodies to allow swimming " all by the year 2012. DEQ, delayed by the 2005 hurricanes, has now resumed its focus on water impairment.

The state has been pressed to clean up local water bodies since passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, but development in rural areas across Louisiana since then has increased the amount of pollution going into local waters. A growing population along a bayou or stream means a change in what constitutes safe levels of discharge from individual households in that area, for example. Unlike waste discharged by businesses and factories, household pollution is largely unregulated.

The state Clean Waters Program will provide a coordinated focus to the task of restoring impaired water bodies by utilizing existing water-monitoring programs and developing new ones, while also taking a closer look at causes of impairment for individual water bodies. It's not just the surface waters that should be of concern, Piehler says. The entire watershed " the surrounding region where rainfall lands and drains to a river, stream or bayou " must be studied in order to determine the cause of a water body's impairment.

In the past, DEQ approached the issue of water-quality management within a broad, programmatic context " a top-down approach " but now it hopes to shift gears and start from the bottom up. 'In reality, each of the almost 500 watersheds throughout the state is unique, and many have different issues affecting their ability to attain the designated uses of fishing and swimming," Piehler says.

The causes of impairment are so diverse that a fix requires working within each individual watershed and interacting with local residents. DEQ hopes that approach will facilitate legislative and/or community action by cultivating local support for water-monitoring and water-quality improvement programs.

'We really need these types of efforts to be owned by the folks in the watershed " local involvement in local environmental programs, if you would " because they are in the best position to know what their problems are and to make the decisions that will affect a change for that community," Piehler says.

Piehler cites one example in Bayou Lafourche where, if local citizens agree to adopt a centralized sewage system for everyone along the bayou, they could reroute wastewater effluent away from the bayou and use it to fertilize adjacent wetlands. This method of fertilization has been shown to promote wetland restoration and also would keep pollution out of a main drinking-water source for the community.

Locally, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has been instrumental in monitoring the water quality of the lake and its tributaries. After it began testing the lake's water in 2001 for things like oxygen, salinity and bacteria levels, the group noticed that one of its sites, the Bogue Falaya River, had unusually high levels of bacteria. 'We felt like we couldn't just point the finger and not do anything about it," says Andrea Calvin, program coordinator for the foundation. 'That's when we put together a program that would start to address it on a watershed level."

The foundation launched an intensive water-monitoring program up and down the entire watershed to determine sources of the high levels of bacteria. This often meant going door-to-door to seek out the source.

The foundation discovered that smaller plants and businesses, often newly constructed, had fallen through the permitting cracks. They might have a permit from the Department of Health and Hospitals that complied with sanitary codes, but not one from DEQ to discharge into state waters. Since then, the foundation has worked closely with area businesses to implement pollution-reduction technologies and to create partnerships between the companies and local and state regulatory agencies.

'From 2002 to 2004 in the Bogue Falaya and Tchefuncte watersheds, we actually found to our surprise that we had measurable improvements on eight streams in a three-year period," Calvin says. 'It even surprised us that it could happen so quickly."

'A pollution source that happens when rainfall falls to the earth, runs off farms, fields, streets, lawns, cities and rural areas, and eventually flows through the watershed into the waters is not regulated," says Piehler. 'There are no or very few regulatory controls on that, so making changes within a watershed to affect [this type of] pollution is often necessarily a voluntary effort on the part of those in the watershed."

The Clean Waters Program also will provide a means for measuring success and reporting progress to the EPA, which has been providing funding to DEQ to administer the Clean Water Act. The EPA has agreed to pay for eight additional DEQ employees to provide coordination and focus to the program during the next three to four years. Piehler is finalizing the draft plan for the program and hopes to have it underway by the end this month.

'The beauty of this plan is that there are many very effective programs already in existence, already functioning, but as time has gone by the number of [pollution] sources in the state has increased tremendously, while the programs in place to minimize pollution and reduce effects on water quality have remained static in terms of the amount of money [and] resources we have," Piehler says. 'So we have to be a little bit smarter about how we spend our resources. This is an effort to add a couple of bells and whistles to enable a focus specifically on the watersheds so that all of these existing programs can work more efficiently."