, Volume 51, Issue 1-2, pp 61-88

The Role of Biological Indicators in a State Water Quality Management Process

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Abstract

State water quality agencies are custodians of water quality management programs under the Clean Water Act of which the protection and restoration of biological integrity in surface waters is an integral goal. However, an inappropriate reliance on chemical/physical stressor and exposure data or administrative indicators in place of the direct measurement of ecological response has led to an incomplete foundation for water resource management. As point sources have declined in significance, the consequences of this flawed foundation for dealing with the major limitations to biological integrity (nonpoint sources, habitat degradation) have become more apparent. The use of biocriteria in Ohio, for example, resulted in the identification of 50% more impairment than a water chemistry approach alone and other inconsistencies of a flawed monitoring foundation are illustrated in the national 305(b) report statistics on waters monitored, aquatic life use attainment, and habitat degradation. Biological criteria (biocriteria) incorporates the broader concept of water resource integrity to supplement the roles of chemical and toxicological approaches and reduces the likelihood of making overly optimistic estimates of aquatic life condition. A carefully conceived ambient monitoring approach comprised of biological, chemical, and physical measures ensures all relevant stressors to water resource integrity are identified and that the efficacy of administrative actions can be directly measured with environmental results. New multimetric indices, such as the IBI, ICI, and BIBI represent a significant advancement in aquatic resource characterization that have allowed the inclusion of biological information into many States water quality management programs. Ohio adopted numerical biocriteria in the Ohio water quality standards regulations in May 1990 and, through multiple aquatic life uses that reflect a continuum of biological condition, represents a tiered approach to water resource management. Biocriteria provide the impetus and opportunity to recognize and account for natural, ecological variability in the environment, something which previously was been lacking in state water quality management programs. The upper Great Miami River in Ohio illustrates a case study where bioassessment data documented the efficacy of efforts to permit, fund, and construct municipal treatment systems in restoring aquatic life. In contrast, in the Mahoning River similar administrative actions were inadequate to restore aquatic life in an environment with severe sediment contamination and impacts from combined sewer overflows. A biocriteria-based goal of restoring 75% of aquatic life uses by the year 2000 in Ohio has led to the use of biological data to identify trends and forecast the status and the causes and sources of impairment to Ohio streams, an effort that should affect the strategic focus of our water resource management efforts. A biocriteria-based approach has profoundly influenced strategic planning and priority setting, water quality based permitting, water quality standards, basic monitoring and reporting, nonpoint source assessment, and problem discovery within Ohio EPA.