DPNR expands, strengthens water quality standards for V.I.

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ST. THOMAS - The territory's water quality standards are changing, becoming a little tougher and more expansive.

In a public hearing Thursday on St. Thomas, Anita Nibbs, environmental program manager for the water quality management program at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources' Division of Environmental Protection, went through the proposed changes.

Water quality standards in the territory are reviewed - and revised if needed - every three years. The standards are required as part of the federal Clean Water Act.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the water quality standards are included in the territorial rules and regulations. They define the physical, chemical, biological and ecological limits allowed for the territory's bodies of water. The standards also provide a framework for maintaining, improving and protecting the territory's water quality, Nibbs said.

A number of new sections have been added to the proposed revision, including a section of definitions.

A new class of water - inland waters - has been established as well. Previously, the water standards only covered coastal waters.

The new "Class I Waters" include inland fresh surface water, inland brackish or saline water and inland groundwater, Nibbs said. As part of the new class, aquatic life that lives in the territory's fresh water areas - including guts and ponds - will be protected from pollutants under the Clean Water Act.

Additional protections for coral reefs have been included in the territory's water quality standards, including lower temperature and turbidity thresholds.

According to the new rules, areas with coral reef ecosystems cannot exceed water temperatures of 25 to 29 degrees Celsius - about 77 to 84.2 degrees Fahrenheit - and anyone discharging wastewater must keep the temperature of the wastewater to only one Celsius degree above normal ocean temperature.

"That's a pretty big deal for our major dischargers," Nibbs said.

She said anyone with a permit to discharge water into the ocean may have to find ways to cool it down further before letting it go.

Turbidity is how clear the water is, or how churned up it may be, Nibbs said.

When the water has a lot of sediment in, it several things can happen. It can shade the corals, preventing them from getting the sunlight they need to thrive. It also can smother the corals physically and add too many nutrients to the water, causing an imbalance in the ecosystem.

Turbidity is measured in "nephelometric turbidity units" or NTUs.

In coral reef areas, the new maximum will be 1 NTU.

"Most areas allowed 3 NTUs, so this is very protective," Nibbs said.

She said on a clear, calm day, most territorial waters probably have a little more than a zero NTU rating.

However, some areas are exempt from the new restrictions because they naturally have more turbidity, she said.

On St. Thomas, those areas are Mandahl Bay (marina), Vessup Bay, Water Bay, Benner Bay and the Mangrove Lagoon.

On St. Croix, those areas include Carlton Beach, Good Hope Beach, Salt River Lagoon (marina), Salt River Lagoon (Sugar Bay), Estate Anguilla Beach, Buccaneer Beach, Tamarind Reef Lagoon, Green Cay Beach and Enfield Green Beach.

"These are already known to not meet turbidity standards," Nibbs said.

The bacteria criteria also has been changed under the proposed regulations. Instead of testing for fecal coliform, the new standard will be to test the levels of enterococci. Nibbs said enterococci is a better indicator of unsafe bacteria levels in the water.

"It's a much more direct connection to the things that impact human health," Nibbs said.

While some sections of the regulations were moved around, the rest of the content remains unchanged from the 2010 revision, according to Nibbs.

A public hearing will take place at 6 tonight on St. Croix in the DPNR main conference room.

The public can comment on the proposed changes until April 7. Send written comments to DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes to either district's DPNR offices.

Once the public hearings are complete and the public comment period is over, the proposed revisions will be reviewed by the V.I. Attorney General's Office and sent to the governor for his signature. The revisions do not have to be approved by the V.I. Legislature. For more information, contact DPNR at 773-1082 on St. Croix and 774-3320 on St. Thomas.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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