Whether or not you agree that the early 1970s were the dawning of an age of enlightenment and social consciousness, one thing is clear: During that era, the public became increasingly aware of how polluted the nation’s waters had become. The EPA had recently been established and was tasked with creating a plan to improve conditions and protect our waters. In 1977, the Clean Water Act (CWA) was born.
The goal of the CWA is the same now as it was 36 years ago: “Restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters so that they can support the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife, and recreation in and on the water.” How far have we come? Sadly, it sometimes seems like that goal is as distant now as it was back then.
Apparently the goal of restoring and maintaining all of the nation’s waters was a bit too overwhelming at the federal level, so the EPA turned to the states. Each state was responsible for evaluating all of the bodies of water within its borders, and creating water quality standards for each of them.
This was pretty daunting for the states, also. The standards for each body of water were to be based on the water’s designated uses and take into account anything that the water was currently used for, anything that it had been used for since November 28, 1975 and anything that they would like the water to be used for in the future. Designated uses could be anything from making the water swimmable and fishable to making the water safe enough for drinking. And the answer could be different for each water body within a state.
Once the states had tested their bodies of water to determine the types of pollutants present and selected the designated uses for each area, they had to come up with plans to meet those goals. First, they had to identify and mitigate the sources of pollution. The states identified both industry and the general public as sources of pollution.
Now, state and federal environmental agencies have little control over homeowners and the general public. They can, however, regulate pollution generated by industry. Thus were born Stormwater Regulations, in the form of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), and National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits. We’ll cover those in next week’s post.
States file reports every two years to let the EPA know the current condition of each body of water in their state, list which ones aren’t meeting water quality standards and outline what strategies will be used to help obtain their goals. These strategies often include awareness campaigns for the general public and tighter discharge guidelines for industry.
Most states are still struggling to meet the goals that were set several decades ago, but when TMDLs and NPDES permits do work and water bodies achieve their goals, they become known as “attainment areas.” Once a water body becomes an attainment area, antidegradation rules are put in place to prevent the water from becoming polluted again.
Up next, we explore how stormwater regulations help limit water pollution and help states achieve their water quality goals.