Clean Water Act Impact Being Felt as West Nile Cases Soar

The media attention paid to the West Nile virus cases in the central states this year has prompted increased interest in control modalities being employed to control the outbreak. This consideration has been welcome in that it allows us to tell our story, while refuting some of the more egregious misinformation being promulgated by those with agendas inimical to our own.

There has been a great deal of conjecture regarding the reasons underlying the magnitude of this year’s outbreak. Answers usually involve an unusually warm winter, coupled with intense springtime rains. That may or may not be true – it’s nearly impossible to tell. An immunologically naïve avian and human cohort in the areas of the outbreak probably contributed as well, but that again, is conjecture. The real point is (and one I make sure is stated as a take-away message) is that West Nile is a relatively recent epidemiological phenomenon in North America and we have much to learn about conditions favorable for its spread. At any rate, this years outbreak underscores the need for a sound and well-funded public health infrastructure to be in place to detect, monitor and contain mosquito-borne diseases that have slipped off the public’s radar screen. The case numbers are a stark reminder that West Nile virus is here to stay and we’d better be prepared to deal with it into the foreseeable future.

Of particular interest is the notion now being debated that the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit requirements may have in some way contributed to the WNV outbreak because of chilling effects they may have had on the conduct of mosquito control operations. In fact, there can be no doubt that NPDES is hampering our ability to provide the citizenry with the public health services they’ve come to expect, resulting in increased risk of vector-borne disease.

The extent to which mosquito control programs, both large and small, have reduced operations because of administrative costs and fears of potentially ruinous litigation attendant to compliance with new Clean Water Act (CWA) requirements mandated by the courts can be fully documented and is provided below.
National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) compliance costs are forcing programs to redirect control resources to comply with the regulatory requirements. Every dollar or man hour needed to meet CWA requirements is a dollar not being put toward protecting the citizens’ health.

  • In some states, preventive mosquito control strategies such as comprehensive larviciding are being curtailed in order to redirect resources toward increased administrative and water monitoring costs. This effectively pushes districts toward more extensive use of adulticides to provide the same measure of control.
  • Commercial applicators historically serving rural communities and small municipalities are increasingly opting to cancel their programs out of fear of increased liability under the CWA. This represents a demonstrable social injustice to those rural poor most in need of these services.
  • Liability fears from adulticide applications are effectively pushing these control strategies farther down the control algorithm or eliminating them entirely. Liability fears are fueling pressures to forego consideration of preventive adulticiding until human cases are identified, allowing for transmission to take place while diseases are incubating in the human population. This is profoundly unethical and effectively makes humans disease sentinels.
  • Water monitoring costs now being levied on California mosquito control districts, if applicable nationwide, would close many districts in other states. In the absence of a non-emergency public health exception to NPDES, there will eventually be increased pressure for other states to adopt California’s monitoring policies.
  • Federal and State agencies are expending vital funds to initiate and maintain NPDES programs governing mosquito control applications. There is no longer slack in government budgets at any level to absorb NPDES program maintenance costs.
  • It is clear that HR 872, the “Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011”, which exempts mosquito control applications in, over or near waters of the United States from these burdensome, duplicative and unnecessary Clean Water Act permitting requirements and impacts, would provide much-needed relief and allow public health to perform its vital functions without any foreseeable impact on the environment. This bill will ensure the citizenry remains fully protected while preventing unnecessary additional regulatory costs to the city/county/state – and will NOT adversely affect water quality. With this and the listed negative impacts in mind, it remains imperative that we keep the pressure on our elected legislators to acknowledge that the provisions of HR 872 require full consideration and resolution in the House and Senate as part of the Farm Bill.
Data supplied by Angela Beehler, Director of the Benton County Mosquito Control District in the state of Washington, provides a compelling message regarding the tradeoffs being forced upon districts in reapportioning scarce resources to meet NPDES permit requirements: