The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a new tool August 23, aimed at assisting states, territories and authorized tribes in developing water quality standards (WQS) variances. For several years now, NACWA has raised concerns with EPA about the Agency’s reliance on potential variances when developing stringent water quality criteria recommendations, noting that many states have avoided using variances or used them sparingly. With the increasing number of WQS being put into place that are pushing the limits of technology, EPA has often simply pointed to the potential for variances to dismiss NACWA’s concerns about achievability. But the Agency is beginning to acknowledge that more must be done to facilitate the development of variances.
The new WQS Variance Building Tool is intended to help states navigate the regulatory requirements EPA has in place at 40 CFR Part 131.14 governing how variances should be structured. Based on inputs from the state, the tool provides draft regulatory language intended to serve as a starting point for states to build on and tailor to their particular needs. EPA stresses that use of the tool does not guarantee EPA approval. The tool appears to be a positive step toward the broader use of variances, sending an additional signal to states that variances are an element of implementing the Clean Water Act. But given the complexity of variances, it remains to be seen how helpful the tool will ultimately be. NACWA will continue its work with EPA to identify other ways to better use the flexible tools, like variances, that are built into the Clean Water Act.