August is National Water Quality Month: Part one

The term water quality is used often, but do citizens really understand how water quality is measured?

We use water every day in a variety of ways: drinking, recreating, irrigating and transporting, to name a few. August is designated as National Water Quality month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but how is the quality of the waters of the U.S. determined? Water quality is determined based on a set of standards and criteria that describe the desired conditions or level of protection or how the required conditions will be established in waters of the U.S. in the future. These standards and criteria are provisions of the state, territorial, authorized tribal or federal law approved by the EPA.   

Water quality standards must include the following items:

  • Designated uses of the water body. This requires states, territories and authorized tribes to specify the goals and objectives about how each water body will be used, including fishing, recreating, drinking water, agricultural irrigation, industrial uses and navigation.
  • Criteria for protection of designated uses. States, territories and authorized tribes must adopt criteria that protect the designated uses. These criteria can be numeric or narrative. Most entities typically adopt both types.
  • Antidegradation requirements. These provide the framework of water quality protection by maintaining the current uses of the water and protecting the quality that has already been achieved.
  • General policies for implementation. Based on EPA approval, states, territories and authorized tribes are allowed to adopt policies and provisions for implementation of water quality standards.

Water quality standards are developed at the state, territory or tribal level using federal guidelines of the Clean Water Act (CWA). Each of these entities adopts its own legal and administrative procedures for adoption of their standards. Generally, they use the following steps:

  • Work group or informal public meetings are held to develop the standards. The proposed standards are then put out for public comment
  • Public hearings are scheduled to gather input from the public.
  • Water quality criteria must be included to provide sufficient coverage and be stringent to protect the designated uses. See August is Water Quality Month: Part two for more information on water quality criteria.

The water quality standards for each entity must be approved by the EPA prior to implementation. If the standards are approved, they become applicable. After approval, entities must do a review of their standards at least once every three years.

If all or part of an entity’s standards are not approved based on the requirement in the CWA, the EPA will outline necessary changes to meet the requirements.

To assist citizens, states, territories and authorized tribes, the EPA has compiled the water quality standards that are approved for use by each entity. Standards for each state can be seen at the EPA Water Quality Standards map.

Designating August as National Water Quality month means more than just an announcement. A lot of work goes into insuring the quality of the nation’s water

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