Water Quality, Nutrients & Nonpoint Source Issues

After four decades of significant progress under the Clean Water Act – due in large part to the technology-based controls mandated by the Act – EPA and the states are now increasingly relying on the CWA’s water quality-based tools, including water quality criteria and total maximum daily loads, to make further progress in maintaining and improving the quality of the nation’s waters.

NACWA is actively engaged with EPA and key stakeholders as the Agency continues to develop new and revised water quality criteria recommendations and related guidance and policy statements that heavily influence implementation of water quality-based programs by the states.  Where states are working to craft standards that may deviate from the federal recommendations, NACWA is closely tracking the interactions between EPA and state regulators to ensure the Agency is not overstepping its statutorily-defined boundaries.  The Clean Water Act’s water quality provisions, however, remain focused on controlling pollutants to lower and lower levels with little consideration of the other impacts that may be impairing water quality (e.g., manmade alterations to the waterbody) or whether the new pollutant levels will lead to actual water quality improvements. 

NACWA is committed to changing this approach, with a focus on more holistic, watershed-based solutions centered around measurable environmental improvement, not just individual pollutant levels.  This is particularly true with complex issues like nutrients, where nonpoint sources are the leading contributors in most watersheds. 

Controlling excess levels of nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, has been identified as the top water quality challenge by most the states.  For almost two decades EPA has been working with the states to develop numeric nutrient criteria and standards for nutrients, but the relationship between nutrients and potential water quality impacts is extremely varied and complex, leaving most states without criteria for many of their waterbodies. 

In the absence of numeric nutrient criteria, the states and EPA have been looking for ways to make progress, but the limitations of the Clean Water Act – focused almost entirely on controlling point sources – has let some of the biggest sources of nutrients off the hook.  Despite the pressure being applied to clean water community, utilities across the country have been looking for ways to engage nonpoint sources in their watershed more collaboratively to address nutrient-related challenges.