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”.

Water Quality Standards: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Water Quality Standards. This part provides references, in relation to Water Quality Standards, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Water Quality Standards by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Water Quality Standards and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Water Quality Standards or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Water Quality Standards and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Water Quality Standards. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Water Quality Standards should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Water Quality Standards when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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