Water Quality Standards

Water Quality Standards in the United States

Water Quality Standards in Environmental Law

Established by each state, water quality standards determine the existing uses of surface waters within their borders. For example, a stream may be used for wildlife, fishing, and recreation; a river may provide drinking water, recreation, fishing, and shellfish. The designated water quality may in fact be optimistic. Even though the water is not being used for a particular purpose at the time the standards are designated, the state can decide that it will meet those objectives in the future.

The concept of water quality standards is old, predating the current Clean Water Act. States were directed to establish the standards and issue permits that would maintain water quality. However, the system resulted in sporadic and ineffective control on water pollution. Issuing permits in terms of an end use of the receiving waters was too nebulous a concept, and the impact of one potential source on water quality is impossible to determine without considering all others that discharge contaminants into same water body. Furthermore, states felt economic pressure to attract new industry, but industry tended to go where the water pollution control was lenient. The federal government did not yet have any power to enforce state water regulations or permits, and federal law governing water discharges was insignificant.

Today, the federal permitting system for discharges, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, has established its own criteria, mandated permits with numerical limits on pollutants, and requires states to certify that any permit it issues does not violate its water quality standards. When issuing a permit, a state must consider other dischargers, because they will be placing stress on the receiving water as well as the new one. If a source will be located in one state and the discharge will affect a downstream state, the downstream state must also be given the opportunity to review the permit and make its own certification or objection to the permit.

Water quality standards are still important in water pollution control; they are simply used differently than they were in the beginning. States must review their water quality standards at least once every three years and revise them when necessary. The goal, according to the Clean Water Act, is to restore the quality of all surface waters within the United States to fishable, swimmable water. If those objectives cannot be reached, the states are required to prevent any further deterioration of the water quality.
Based on “Environment and the Law. A Dictionary”.



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