Measuring Water Quality Is Not an Easy Task

Optimistic timetable did not account for the magnitude of the endeavor

The job of cleaning up the nation’s waterways is a dirty one. And, apparently, one that is going to take much longer than Congress thought 35 years ago this month.

When legislators passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, they put forth two ambitious goals: make an interim goal of water quality that protects fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation by 1983 and eliminate the discharge of pollution into navigable waters by 1985.

While many agree that the law did not achieve those goals, it did put the federal government’s agent (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), not the states, in charge of the nation’s water quality.

Over the next 10 years, the law was amended three times and was commonly referred to as the Clean Water Act. EPA required cities and industry to lower their pollutant levels but gradually came to realize that a flexible approach might prove more effective, especially when confronting nonpoint sources of pollution. The Clean Water Act was last amended in 1987.

Dated data
Historians credit the law with significantly restoring America’s waterways. To determine that today, however, may be difficult since the latest data available from EPA’s “National Water Quality Inventory” was summarized in 2000. The federal inventory is based on water quality reports from the states that measure how many waterbodies meet certain water quality standards. For 2000, those numbers are:

• 61 percent of assessed river and stream miles,
• 54 percent of accessed lake acres,
• 49 percent of assessed estuarine square miles, and
• 22 percent of assessed Great Lakes shoreline miles.

Since the 2000 report was released, EPA has adopted an electronic method to gather state information. The 2004 National Assessment Database, which is available on the Internet, “should not be used to compare water quality conditions between states or to identify statewide or national trends because of differences in state assessment methods and changes to EPA guidance,” the agency cautions. The database can be found at and provides summary information and assessments of individual waterbodies.

EPA Press Officer Enesta Jones explained that the 2002 National Water Quality Inventory summary report is now under review. Section 305(b) and 303(d) reporting have been consolidated, and the 2004 data also is being made available on the Web site as it clears, but no national summary report is yet available for 2004 or later, she explained.

A more current information source may be the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund report, “Troubled Waters: An Analysis of Clean Water Act Compliance, July 2003-December 2004.” This report was released in March 2006.

The group describes itself as the research and public education center for U.S. PIRG, the national advocacy office of the state PIRGs. Information provided in “Troubled Waters” comes from EPA, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The report analyzes all major facilities violating their Clean Water Act permits during this time, reveals the type of pollutants they are discharging, and details the extent to which these facilities are exceeding their permit levels.

More pollution
Not surprisingly, the report found that more pollutants are being discharged than are allowed by permits:

• Nationally, more than 3,700 major facilities (62 percent) exceeded their permit limits at least once between July 1, 2003 and December 31, 2004. Facilities are “major” if they achieve a certain score in EPA’s system, which considers a combination of factors, including toxic pollutant potential, streamflow volume, public health impacts, and proximity to coastal waters.

• The 3,700 major facilities exceeding their permits in the time period studied reported more than 29,000 exceedances of their limits. This means that many facilities exceeded their permits more than once and for more than one pollutant. All of this information points to a need for better pollution control. Perhaps Congress will address that in this session.

Marking a milestone
Despite all of this bad news, some groups are using the anniversary of the Clean Water Act to educate others about what they can do to help.

The Water Environment Federation will mark the anniversary at WEFTEC08 in San Diego, Calif., with a plenary session (Session 12.) Panelists will review the challenges of pollution from nonpoint sources as well as atmospheric deposition of acidic agents, heavy metals, and other toxins. They will discuss potential solutions and actions needed to continue improving the condition of the nation’s waters in today’s political and economic climate.

Friends of Casco Bay (Maine) will host a gala 35th anniversary celebration of the Clean Water Act on Oct. 21. Terry Tamminen, an international environmental leader, will discuss the lessons learned over the past three decades and how they can be applied to future threats, such as climate change.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

L.K. Williams is editor of Water and Wastewater News.

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