Water quality is defined by the ‘standards’ we use

Washington Department of Ecology is in the early stages of revising water quality standards for our state, beginning with a series of meetings to find out what people think. See my story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun for an overview, and check Ecology’s news release for the meeting schedule and process for proposing changes.

It’s hard to tell how aggressive Ecology will be about changing these standards. Given state budget limitations, the agency may opt to do little, yet Ecology officials say they are willing to address problems that people see in the existing standards or in their implementation.

What we’re talking about here is changing the definition what makes good, clean, safe water. Changing the standards could bring increased attention to individual streams, lakes and bays and possibly even trigger a new approach for all streams.

Water quality standards are the driver for creating the state’s list of impaired water bodies (the 303d list). They are used to write discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and stormwater outfalls. And in cleanup plans for polluted waterways, they provide guidance for allocating pollution limits among point and nonpoint sources.

Priorities for changes that could be made are expected to be announced next spring after all the comments are compiled and reviewed, including suggestions from state and local officials, according to Susan Braley of Ecology’s Water Quality Program. Nationwide standards, which are under continual review by the Environmental Protection Agency, sometimes require the state to make changes.

Some of the ideas that have been kicking about, in no particular order:

  • New standards for total petroleum hydrocarbons
  • New standards for certain kinds of pesticides harmful to salmon
  • New standards for copper, which are known to affect salmon
  • New standards for toxic chemicals known to affect human health
  • A change in the bacterial standard from fecal coliform to e. coli
  • Allowance for alternative indicators for the presence of human waste
  • Further refinements of temperature standards, which were updated in 2006 to protect bull trout
  • New standards for pH as related to ocean acidification
  • New rates for fish-consumption by people, which could change numerical standards for a range of toxics

If anyone tells me about other ideas, I will add them to the list.

For more information, check out EPA’s informational website about Water Quality Standards and Surface Waters. There’s also an instructive online course focusing on theer Clean Water Act by the River Network.

To read the standards themselves, go to the Washington Administrative Code, Chapter 173-201A.

5 thoughts on “Water quality is defined by the ‘standards’ we use

  1. Chris, one thing you mentioned in your article that was not apparent on your list is pharmaceuticals. Another thing not mentioned at all is pH. I suppose that one could argue that pH is a really different kind of animal from the pollutants, but it is an indicator like fecal coliform of how we are affecting our waters. If we don’t monitor it, we won’t know what’s going on.

  2. pH is already in the standards and any change is not really needed. What Chris is referring to is the triennial review of water quality standards that all states have to do.

    Also, not enough is known about pharmaceuticals and their impacts to human health and aquatic organisms, yet. It is an emerging science and when the science supports the need for standards then they can be implemented. It would be labeled scare tactics or something similar to propose standards for this class of compounds without the supporting work.

  3. BIG,

    I think you’re right about pharmaceuticals. Any new standards will probably come out of national studies. This will be controversial because there is no technology or practice that can be easily implemented. We are seeing a push to dispose of unused medications in ways that keep them out of the water, but some drugs retain activity after they pass through the human body.

    As for pH, there is an issue I forgot to mention: climate change. Higher carbon dioxide levels are increasing the acidity of seawater, and this is something that has been measured off the coast of Washington state. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit to get the EPA to regulate ocean acidity. In settling the case earlier this year, the EPA agreed to look into it. See the Federal Register, March 22. My last report on this topic in Water Ways was July 13 related to a Hood Canal study, and I need to do some more reporting on this issue.

    Thanks, stillhope, for bringing up these ideas. That is exactly what I was hoping for and would welcome additional comments.

  4. Does the water standard address the state of our water tables? Seems to me that we should track the rate in which our water tables are receding (or hopefully increasing). Then there should be some standards in place to ensure our water tables are being maintained in a sustainable way. The idea that we will continue to pump out fossil water till it’s all gone with no regard for sustainability haunts me.

  5. Christian,

    Like the name implies, water quality standards relate to water quality. Your concerns relate to water quantity, or whether our groundwater supplies will be adequate for the future.

    Groundwater supplies are related to the amount of rainfall we get, the rate at which it soaks into the ground and the rate at which we pump it out.

    These factors and others will be taken into consideration during a $1.4 million study just approved. From this study, we should learn where on the Kitsap Peninsula water is plentiful, where water supplies may not meet demands and how things could change in the future.

    With this information, we can know whether we need to reduce our total water consumption, move water from one area to another or take other steps to address water shortages. I’ll keep you informed as the study moves forward.

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