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Clean Water Act

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act, more commonly known as the Clean Water Act, was first promulgated in 1972 and amended several times since (e.g. 1977, 1987 and 1990). This law is designed to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters, including the waters of the national park system. To achieve this, the act called for a major grant program to assist in the construction of municipal sewage treatment facilities and a program of effluent limitations designed to limit the amount of pollutants that could be discharged. Effluent limitations are the basis for permits issued for all point source discharges, known as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

As part of the act, Congress recognized the primary role of the states in managing and regulating the nation's water quality. Section 313 requires that all federal agencies comply with the requirements of state law for water quality management, regardless of other jurisdictional status or landownership. States implement the protection of water quality under the authority granted by the Clean Water Act through best management practices and through water quality standards. Standards are based on the designated uses of a water body or segment of water, the water quality criteria necessary to protect that use or uses, and an anti-degradation provision to protect the existing water quality.

A state's anti-degradation policy is a three-tiered approach to maintaining and protecting various levels of water quality. Minimally, the existing uses of a water segment and the quality level necessary to protect the uses must be maintained. The second level provides protection of existing water quality in segments where quality exceeds the fishable/swimmable goals of the Clean Water Act. The third level provides protection of the state's highest quality waters where ordinary use classifications may not suffice; these are classified as Outstanding National Resources Waters (ONRW). ONRW status, in most cases, is a desirable designation to acquire for National Park Service units with significant water resources management responsibilities. For waters designated as ONRW, water quality must be maintained and protected and only short-term changes may be permitted. ONRW designations for waters outside the park boundaries, which parks can apply for, can also ensure the protection of water that flows into a park unit.

Section 303 of the act requires the promulgation of water quality standards by the states. Additionally, each state is required to review its water quality standards at least once every three years. This section also requires the listing of those waters where effluent limitations are not stringent enough to implement any water quality standard [so-called 303(d) list]. Each state must establish, for each of the waters listed, total maximum daily loads for applicable pollutants. Section 305(b) requires that each state prepare and submit to the EPA a biennial report describing water quality conditions of lakes and streams. The report also lists any pollution problems occurring on certain steam reaches. Streams are then classified as supporting, not supporting, or only partially supporting their designated uses (for fishing, recreation, drinking, etc.). Section 319 requires states to develop controls over non-point source pollution, such as erosion. Although some sources of pollution, particularly industrial and municipal dischargers, fall under the NPDES program (defined under Section 402 of the act). Section 401 requires that any applicant for a federal license or permit to conduct an activity which will result in a discharge into waters of the U.S. shall provide the federal agency, from which a permit is sought, a certificate from the state water pollution control agency stating that any such discharge will comply with applicable water quality standards. Federal permits which require Water Quality Certification from the State of Alaska include 404 permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the discharge of dredged or fill material. Section 402 requires that a NPDES permit be obtained for the discharge of pollutants from any point source into the waters of the Unites States. Point source, waters of the Unites States and pollutants are all broadly defined under the Act, but generally all discharges and storm water runoff from major industrial and transportation activities, municipalities, and certain construction activities must be permitted by the NPDES program. The EPA usually delegates NPDES permitting authority to the state. The state, through the permitting process, establishes the effluent limitations and monitoring requirements for the types and quantities of pollutants that may be discharged into its waters. Under the anti-degradation policy, the state must ensure that the approval of a NPDES permit will not eliminate or otherwise impair any designated uses of the receiving waters. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act further requires that a permit be issued for discharge of dredged or fill materials in waters of the U.S., including wetlands. The Act includes other impacts to riverine systems, such as piping, filling, relocating, culverting and sand and gravel mining. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers administers the Section 404 permit program with oversight and veto powers held by the EPA. The Corps must notify the NPS of an intent to issue a permit and solicit NPS comments regarding any potential impacts.

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Last Updated: March 02, 2012