An Examination of the Reference Watershed Approach for TMDLs with Benthic Impairments

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Virginia Tech


This research addresses the Reference Watershed Approach (RWA) in the TMDL process for benthic impairments. In the RWA, do different land use sources (DOQQ and NLCD) or use of alternative water quality models (GWLF and SWAT) result in different stressor loadings? Is there a difference in stressor loadings when different reference watersheds are used?

Study results showed that using different land use sources resulted in required stressor reductions that were different by greater than 10%. In one scenario, use of the NLCD-based land use parameters results in 3.5 times greater reductions than use of DOQQ-based land use parameters. With respect to water quality model selection, in two of the three scenarios considered, a difference in stressor reduction requirements of greater than 10% resulted from using different models. Differences in load reduction requirements are also seen when different reference watersheds are used, regardless of the water quality model or the land use source used. Different references result in a difference of as much as 73% in required sediment reductions in the impaired watershed: the required reductions using one reference watershed are 6.2 times as great as when another is used.

Possible alternatives to the RWA include water quality standards to set the target level for many of the common stressors on the benthic assemblage, regression equations that relate benthic stressors to the RBP II score, or averaging of stressor reduction requirements obtained from using the Reference Watershed Approach on several different reference watersheds.



benthic impairment, Water quality, TMDL, Water quality model, Reference Watershed Approach