Clean Water Act: History & How to Comply

Editor’s note: Welcome to our series on Stormwater Management! We hope you find these PIG-exclusive articles to be helpful in explaining the basics of stormwater regulations and what you can do to help protect your storm drains.

Why should you care about complying with Stormwater Regulations? Because noncompliance can be an expensive headache and, more importantly, protecting the environment is just the right thing to do. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can levy hefty fines for violations, but more concerning to many businesses is the potential for negative press and a tarnished reputation in the eyes of customers, vendors and stakeholders.

Some of the most commonly cited Stormwater Regulations are contained in the Clean Water Act (CWA). This act governs the conditions of each body of water in the United States and forbids their purposeful or negligent pollution. The CWA charges the EPA with creating and enforcing pollution control programs and regulations.

Table of Contents:

Stormwater Regulations That Support the CWA

A Brief History of Stormwater Regulations

How to Comply with Stormwater Regulations

Stormwater Regulations That Support the CWA

Stormwater management encompasses many applications and applies to different business in different ways. For this reason, the EPA has passed dozens of Stormwater Regulations to cover every angle and optimize compliance. Some of the most relevant regulations that are associated with the CWA are:

  • Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures (SPCC) regulations for discharges of oil and oil products [40 CFR 112]
  • Stormwater Pollution Prevention Regulations, including the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permitting Program governing discharges into waters [40 CFR 122]
  • Water Quality Standards that require each state to designate appropriate uses for all of their bodies of water [40 CFR 131]
  • Primary Drinking Water Regulations that set minimum criteria for safe drinking water [40 CFR 141 and 142]

A Brief History of Stormwater Regulations

During the 1970s, 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 was born.

The goal of the CWA is the same now as it was then: “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.”

The EPA Turned to the States

Since the goal of restoring and maintaining all of the nation’s waters was an overwhelming task at the federal level the EPA turned to the states. Each state was responsible for evaluating all bodies of water within its borders, and creating water quality standards for each of them.

This was also daunting for the states. 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 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. This included identifying and mitigating the sources of pollution from industry and the general public.

Stormwater Regulation by Industry

Although state and federal environmental agencies have little control over homeowners and the general public, they can regulate pollution generated by industry. Stormwater Regulations, in the form of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) and National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits, were created for this purpose.

States file reports every two years to let the EPA know the current condition of each body of water within their borders, listing those that aren’t meeting water quality standards and outlining what strategies will be used to help obtain their goals. These strategies often include awareness campaigns for the 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.

How to Comply with Stormwater Regulations

The EPA says that facilities discharging pollutants are considered “point sources.” That means if your facility releases anything other than pure, fresh water at the ambient temperature of the receiving waters, you’re going to need a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

Polluting Requires Permits

The stormwater permitting program strictly limits the volume of pollutants and requires facilities to monitor discharges and have plans to prevent larger discharges.

Only waters of the United State are subject to EPA regulation. These include:

  • All waters currently, formerly or potentially used for interstate or foreign commerce
  • All waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide
  • Interstate waters and wetlands
  • Territorial seas
  • Impoundments of water (enclosures such as reservoirs)
  • Tributaries
  • Waters adjacent to included bodies such as wetlands, ponds, lakes, impoundments and oxbows (curved lakes formerly part of a river)
  • Waters determined on a case-specific basis to have a significant nexus to an identified water

Waters of the United States do not include:

  • Prairie potholes (glacially formed wetlands in the upper Midwest)
  • Carolina and Delmarva Bays (digressional wetlands near the Atlantic coastal plain)
  • Pocosins (wetlands covered with evergreen trees and shrubs along the Central Atlantic coastal plain)
  • Western vernal pools (seasonal wetlands in parts of California)
  • Texas coastal prairie wetlands (freshwater wetlands near the Texas Gulf Coast)
  • Waters located within the 100-year floodplain of identified waters
  • All waters within 4,000 feet of the high tide mark of identified waters
  • Water treatment systems
  • Prior converted cropland
  • Ditches that do not evacuate to a tributary or other water
  • Artificially-irrigated areas
  • Artificially-constructed lakes and ponds
  • Artificial reflecting pools
  • Swimming pools
  • Small ornamental waters
  • Water-filled depressions and pits that are incidental to mining or construction
  • Gullies, rills and other erosional features
  • Puddles
  • Groundwater
  • Stormwater control features that convey, treat or store stormwater
  • Wastewater recycling structure

Water uses vary and water quality treatments vary accordingly. Drinking water sources are carefully guarded, while water quality requirements are slightly relaxed for waters used for fishing or swimming. The EPA requires each state to designate the uses for each of its waterbodies and create a management strategy to improve contaminated waters and prevent further pollution.

Permits Require Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plans

In order to get an NPDES permit, you’ll need a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) that outlines the processes, procedures and defenses that your employees will use to prevent water pollution. Those processes, procedures and defenses are known as best management practices (BMPs). A BMP is something a facility does (or in some cases does not do) to avoid polluting receiving waters. The official definition is:

“Schedules of activities, prohibitions of practices, maintenance procedures, and other management practices to prevent or reduce the pollution of ‘waters of the United States’. BMPs also include treatment requirements, operating procedures, and practices to control plant site runoff, spillage or leaks, sludge or waste disposal, or drainage from raw material storage.”

In a nutshell: The EPA wants you to have an NPDES, but first you must have a SWPPP that lists your BMPs.

The EPA does not mandate what BMPs a facility must use to build a compliant plan. It is up to the facility to evaluate their processes, storage and handling procedures, spill response equipment and capabilities and determine what will work best for the site.

You Might Already Have Stormwater BMPs In Place

Creating a SWPPP doesn’t always mean starting from scratch. Consider this example: You’ve already worked hard to be compliant with secondary containment regulations. And you’ve done the math and figured out how much secondary containment you need. You know that your secondary containment system will prevent leaks, spills and drainage from leaving your facility. That makes your secondary containment a BMP that fulfills the EPA’s requirements for a SWPPP: containment, maintenance and operating procedures. So, with your secondary containment system, you’re already a step ahead when it comes to Stormwater Regulations.

Keep reading our Stormwater Management Series for more expert advice and storm drain solutions from New Pig.

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