USEPA Proposes Revisions to the Water Quality Standards Program Under the Clean Water Act

Posted on October 23, 2013 by Kevin Beaton

On September 4, 2013 EPA published proposed changes to its Water Quality Standards Rule at 40 CFR Part 131 (WQS Rule).  The proposal is styled “regulatory clarifications” but the proposal represents the most significant changes made to the WQS Rule in some thirty years.  The WQS Rule currently sets forth the minimum conditions that must be met in each State’s or Tribe’s water quality standards before EPA can approve them under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Increasingly over the years, state water quality standard decisions have been the driver behind required stringent permit limits in NPDES Permits, TMDLs for impaired waters and lawsuits against EPA.  The proposed rule is mostly an attempt to codify exciting EPA guidance and practices to ensure national consistency and “transparency.”  Many of the proposed changes were generally discussed in EPA’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM) on water quality standards published in 1998 and many come from the Great Lakes Water Quality Guidance at 40 CFR Part 132.

First EPA is proposing to amend the use attainability analysis (UAA) requirements found in the current rule to now require a state or Tribe to identify the highest attainable use (HAU) and the water quality criteria to protect the HAU in any UAA.  A UAA is a structured analysis a State or Tribe can undertake to attempt to demonstrate to EPA that the so called “fishable and swimmable” uses required under the CWA are not attainable based on a number of factors.  These factors include low flows, natural or physical conditions, human caused conditions which cannot be remedied, dams, or because controls to achieve attainment would be too expensive.  At least in the Northwest, EPA have been very reluctant to approve UAAs because the agency has a “rebuttable presumption” that fishable uses and swimmable uses are attainable (some might call it an irrebuttable presumption) and implicitly that it is never too expensive to remedy water quality problems.  Requiring states and Tribes to also adopt a new HAU in connection with a UAA along with associated criteria may make the UAA an even less viable CWA off-ramp.

Speaking of off-ramps, the proposed rule also sets forth the conditions under which a state or Tribe can adopt “variances” to water quality standards for individual or groups of NPDES permittees.  Variances are merely referenced in the current WQS Rule and have been viewed as a “UAA lite.”  Variances are codified in water quality standards (subject to approval by EPA) and allow individual dischargers or groups of NPDES Permits to temporarily exceed water quality based effluent limits based on the same factors which justify a UAA.  EPA articulates in the proposal that it believes variances have been underutilized and therefore sets forth the conditions which the Agency will grant variances for an individual or groups of NPDES permittees.  (e.g. Demonstrate temporary unattainability, maximum timeline of 10 years and protect the HAU during the variance.)  Whether the proposal will lead to more variances may be doubtful.  EPA has typically been unwilling to approve variances for industrial or commercial dischargers (although they are more flexible with municipalities) because pollution controls to meet WQS are seemingly never too expensive.

As my colleague Patricia Barmeyer notes in her recent post, the proposed rule also proposes changes to antidegradation implementation procedures that are somewhat consistent with current practices and guidance by providing some flexibility in how states protect high quality waters and a specific requirement that states must first require dischargers to implement “practicable” pollution controls that minimize or eliminate any degradation to high quality before allowing the discharge.  “Practicable” is not defined but if this term is implemented in the same way as proving economic hardship in a UAA or variance then new and increased discharges could be subject to additional (and expensive) hurdles in going through antidegradation reviews.  Finally, the proposed rule addresses compliance schedules in NPDES permits consistent with current practice and specifies the conditions under which the EPA Administrator will make determinations that a water quality standard does not meet the requirements of the CWA.  Comments on the proposed rule are due on December 3, 2013 (unless an extension is granted).



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