NACWA Webinar on EPA’s National Nutrient Survey

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the process of sending a survey to every publicly owned wastewater treatment plant (POTW) in the country. If you have not already received the survey, it will arrive via U.S. Mail soon at each of your treatment facilities that have a Clean Water Act permit. The survey – the first phase in a planned, five-year study of the nutrient performance of secondary treatment plants – is intended to establish a baseline from which EPA will select utilities for further study. EPA hopes the study will identify opportunities for low-cost nutrient removal through optimization of the secondary treatment process.

NACWA wants to make sure its members and the broader clean water community are fully informed as they evaluate whether to complete the survey and is hosting a free webinar to provide additional information for the clean water community (details below). NACWA has encouraged EPA to look for better ways, other than this five-year study, to deploy its resources to achieve nutrient reductions through technical assistance much sooner, but has worked with EPA to refine the survey and minimize its burden as outlined below.

As EPA and its new political leadership continue to work on the broader study, NACWA’s Board of Directors believes it is in the best interest of the Association’s members to ensure that the data EPA collects in this initial survey and in future data collection steps are as complete and accurate as possible.


** Webinar Date and Registration TBD Upon Survey's Release by EPA

NACWA Advocacy Results in Improvements

NACWA has actively engaged EPA on this issue since 2016 to minimize the impact of the survey on the utility community, resulting in the following improvements:

  • The survey is entirely voluntary – EPA initially wanted a mandatory survey, with responses compelled under Section 308 of the Clean Water Act, but NACWA pushed back and EPA agreed to make the survey voluntary.
  • The survey presents less of a burden to utilities than earlier versions – One of the reasons NACWA resisted a mandatory survey was the length of the survey and the amount of time it would take utilities to complete. EPA has addressed NACWA’s concerns to some extent, reducing the number of questions and simplifying the questionnaire, especially for small utilities. But some utilities may still find it difficult to provide all of the information EPA is requesting.
  • The survey questions have been modified to remove much of the content that may have raised concerns for utilities – earlier versions of the survey included questions about treatment practices, including management of peak wet weather flows, that would have put utilities in a difficult position when evaluating whether to respond. The most recent draft of the survey made available to NACWA addressed many of the NACWA’s concerns, but some problematic content remained.

Policy Considerations

NACWA is concerned that the data EPA collects from the study could be used in the future to support efforts to modify the definition of secondary treatment. In 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other groups petitioned EPA to modify secondary treatment to include the removal of nitrogen and phosphorus as part of the technology-based standard that all POTWs must meet.

NACWA’s advocacy was successful in demonstrating that such a move was contrary to Congressional intent in the drafting of the Clean Water Act and would waste resources in requiring removals where water quality issues were not present. EPA ultimately denied that petition. Any new data, such as the information that EPA’s new study will collect, could provide further ammunition for the environmental NGO community to renew its efforts.

As EPA proceeds, however, NACWA’s Board of Directors believes it is in the best interest of the Association’s members and the broader public clean water utility community to ensure that the data EPA collects is as complete and accurate as possible.

What Your Utility Should Do?

Utilities should discuss internally if and how they plan to respond to EPA’s survey, and also consider consulting legal counsel. In addition to the broader policy considerations discussed above, utilities may not be comfortable sharing some of the information with EPA. The data will be made publicly available through an EPA database in the future, which could expose utilities to enforcement and/or third-party lawsuits. These are important considerations that all utilities should evaluate. 

To help utilities better understand the policy implications of the survey, NACWA is hosting a free webinar on [DATE]. Visit [URL] to register or contact [EMAIL] for more information.