Measuring Water Quality Is Not an Easy Task
Optimistic timetable did not account for the magnitude of the endeavor
- By L. K. Williams
- Oct 01, 2007
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.
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
• 54 percent of accessed lake acres,
• 49 percent of assessed estuarine square
• 22 percent of assessed Great Lakes shoreline
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 www.epa.gov/waters/305b/index.html 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.
Not surprisingly, the report found that more
pollutants are being discharged than are allowed
• 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.