Water quality law
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Water quality laws govern the release of pollutants into water resources, including surface water, ground water, and stored drinking water. Some water quality laws, such as drinking water regulations, may be designed solely with reference to human health. Many others, including restrictions on the alteration of the chemical, physical, radiological, and biological characteristics of water resources, may also reflect efforts to protect aquatic ecosystems more broadly. Regulatory efforts may include identifying and categorizing water pollutants, dictating acceptable pollutant concentrations in water resources, and limiting pollutant discharges from effluent sources. Regulatory areas include sewage treatment and disposal, industrial and agricultural waste water management, and control of surface runoff from construction sites and urban environments.
The Earth's hydrosphere is ubiquitous, fluid, and complex. Within the water cycle, physical water moves without regard to political boundaries between the Earth's atmosphere, surface, and subsurface, through both natural and man-made channels. Consequently, water quality laws must define the portion of this complex system subject to regulatory control. Regulatory jurisdictions may be coterminous with political boundaries (e.g., certain treaty responsibilities may apply to water pollution in all of Earth's international waters). Other laws may apply only to a subset of waters within a political boundary (e.g., a national law that applies only to navigable surface waters), or to a special class of water (e.g., drinking water resources). Cross-jurisdictional waters may be subject to cross-jurisdictional agreements. Even within jurisdictions, complexities may arise where water flows between subsurface and surface, or saturates land without permanently inundating it (wetlands).
Water pollutant classification
Water quality laws must identify the substances and energies which qualify as "water pollution" for purposes of further control. From a regulatory perspective, this requires defining the class(es) of materials that qualify as pollutants, and the activities that transform a material into a pollutant.
For example, the United States Clean Water Act defines "pollution" (i.e., water pollution) very broadly to include any and all "man-made or man-induced alteration of the chemical, physical, biological, and radiological integrity of water." However, the Act defines "pollutants" subject to its control more specifically, as "dredged spoil, solid waste, incinerator residue, filter backwash, sewage, garbage, sewage sludge, munitions, chemical wastes, biological materials, radioactive materials [with certain exceptions], heat, wrecked or discarded equipment, rock, sand, cellar dirt and industrial, municipal, and agricultural waste discharged into water. " This definition begins to define both the classes or types of materials (e.g., solid waste) and energies (e.g., heat) that may constitute water pollution, and indicates the moment at which otherwise useful materials may be transformed into pollution for regulatory purposes: when they are "discharged into water," defined elsewhere as "addition" of the material to regulated waters.
Regulatory regimes may also use definitions to reflect policy decisions, excluding certain classes of materials from the definition of water pollution that would otherwise be considered to constitute water pollution. For example, the U.S. Clean Water Act definition quoted above later excludes sewage discharged from vessels (further information at Regulation of ship pollution in the United States) - meaning that a common and important class of water pollution is, by definition, not considered a pollutant for purposes of the United States' primary water quality law.
Definitional questions have resulted in litigation in the United States regarding whether even water itself may qualify as a "pollutant" (e.g., adding warm water to a stream). The United States Supreme Court addressed these issues most recently in Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc..
Water quality standards
Water quality standards are legal standards or requirements governing water quality, that is, the concentrations of water pollutants in some regulated volume of water. Such standards are generally expressed as levels of a specific water pollutants (whether chemical, physical, biological, or radiological) that are deemed acceptable in the water volume, and are generally designed relative to the water's intended use - whether for human consumption, industrial or domestic use, recreation, or as aquatic habitat. Determining appropriate water quality standards generally requires up-to-date scientific data on the health or environmental effects of the pollutant under review. It also may require periodic or continuous monitoring of water quality. Regulatory decisions on water quality standards may also incorporate political considerations, such as the economic costs and benefits of compliance.
As an example, the United States employs water quality standards as part of its regulation of surface water quality under the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act Water Quality Standards (WQS) Program begins with U.S. states designating intended uses (e.g., recreation, drinking water, natural habitat) for surface water, after which they develop science-based water quality criteria - including numeric pollutant concentration limits, narrative goals (e.g., free from algae blooms), and narrative biological criteria (i.e., the aquatic life that should be able to live in the waterbody). If the water body fails the existing WQS criteria, the state must develop a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for pollutants of concern. Human activity impacting water quality will then be controlled via other regulatory means in order to achieve the TMDL targets.
Water designated for human consumption as drinking water may be subject to specific drinking water quality standards. In the United States, for example, such standards have been developed under the Safe Drinking Water Act, are mandatory, and are enforced via a comprehensive monitoring and correction program.
Effluent limitations are legal requirements governing the discharge of pollutants into water. Such standards set quantitative limits on the permissible amount of specific water pollutants that may be released from specific sources over specific timeframes. They are generally designed to achieve water quality standards for the receiving waterbody.
Numerous methods exist for determining appropriate limitations...
For example, many of these approaches are used in the United States. The law requires the United States Environmental Protection Agency (responsible for water quality regulation at a national level under the U.S. Clean Water Act to develop "effluent guidelines" - national industry-specific effluent limitations based on the the performance of existing control technologies, including "best conventional pollutant control techonlogy," "best practicable control technology," and "best available technology economically achievable."
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Permitting, data collection, and access
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Around the world
Groundwater is protected at the federal level principally through two laws:
- The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, through regulation of the disposal of municipal solid waste and hazardous waste.
- The Safe Drinking Water Act, through regulation of injection wells.
Both laws are administered by EPA.
The Safe Drinking Water Act governs public water systems in the United States, and is administered by EPA. Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
- Clean Water Act Sec. 502(19).
- 40 C.F.R. Sec. 122.2.
- Clean Water Act Sec. 501(12).
- 40 C.F.R. Sec. 122.2.
- See generally, EPA Water Quality Standards page.
- EPA, Water Quality Standards Fact Sheet.
- See generally, U.S. EPA, Effluent Limitations Guidelines and Standards.
- See Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations Parts 405-499.
- Canada Water Act, R.S., 1985, c. C-11.
- Health Canada. Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality. December 2010.
- Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, P.L. 92-500, 33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq., as amended.
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, P.L. 94-580 (1976), 42 U.S.C. § 6901 et seq., as amended.
- Safe Drinking Water Act, P.L. 93-523 (1974), 42 U.S.C. § 300f et seq., as amended.
- Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, P.L. 75-717 (1938), 21 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., as amended.