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Triennial Review of the Water Quality Standards – What’s Happening in Your State?

Posted: June 7th, 2021

Authors: Karen T. 

Where is your State in the Water Quality Standards Review?

To comply with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) requirements finalized in 2015, states and tribes must develop, maintain, and conduct a review of their Water Quality Standards (WQS) at least once every three years. 40 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 131.21 establishes procedures for U.S. EPA to approve states’ WQS.

U.S. EPA has established national recommended Water Quality Criteria (WQC) pursuant to Section 304 of the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Those WQC are used to develop recommended WQS at the federal level.  Although each state has its own procedures for adopting new or different WQS, all states begin with a public participation process.  The goal during the Triennial Review is to:

  • Adopt the U.S. EPA recommended criteria,
  • Adopt criteria to reflect site specific conditions, or
  • Use other scientific methods to develop state-specific criteria.

Each state must include key elements in the WQS to meet U.S. EPA approval.

  • Designated uses that are consistent with the CWA
  • Criteria sufficient to protect designated uses
  • Antidegradation requirements
  • General procedures or policies affecting the application and implementation of the WQS

While U.S EPA provides recommended criteria and approves state WQS, each state and its stakeholders have the ability to provide meaningful input into the adoption of any standard every three years.  Several states are in the process of providing information and asking for public input this year.  For example, Florida’s public comment period ended May 19, 2021, Vermont published their proposed WQS changes in April 2021, and Kentucky is currently taking public comments in June.

The Kentucky Division of Water will conduct a listening session Tuesday June 22, 2021 via a web meeting.  The Division will accept written comments through August 6, 2021. The Division will consider the latest recommended water quality criteria updates from the U.S. EPA including:

  • Updating criteria for aquatic life for ammonia
  • Establishing aquatic life criteria for aluminum
  • Updating human health criteria for 94 pollutants
  • Designating new Outstanding State Resource Waters (OSRW) and Exceptional Waters

Why Participate in the Review Process within your State?

The CWA has three primary parts:

  • Water Quality Standards
  • Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL)
  • National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit

All three parts represent a state’s Water Quality Policy, but the TMDL and NPDES requirements are derived from the WQS.  The WQS and criteria are used to establish limits in your NPDES Permit, establish TMDLs for impacted water bodies, and restrict use of certain water bodies that show degradation.

WQS are established pursuant to Section 303(c) of the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Section 303(c) establishes national goals customized state-by-state for designated uses, criteria to protect those uses, antidegradation policy, and TMDLs.

TMDLs are established under Section 303(d) for state-designated water bodies that do not meet WQS.  A water body may have one or several WQS it does not meet.  Each WQS not met may have a TDML developed unique to the water body designed to:

  • Rebalance loadings that have created exceedances of the WQS
  • Provide waste load allocations for point sources implemented in the NPDES permit
  • Provide load allocations to non-point sources

Under the CWA, each state conducts water quality assessments and evaluates its waterbodies against WQS.  The state’s list of impaired waterbodies is published (Section 303(d)/305(b) Integrated Report) and submitted to U.S. EPA every two years.  As WQS are changed or incorporated for an individual pollutant, the state will also update the evaluation of its waterbodies using the new WQS.

Understanding the implications of new or revised WQS is important to planning for capital projects, such as expansions and changes to your water treatment.  Small changes can have large impacts.

The time to provide comments and affect changes to the WQS is during the Triennial Review process.  Once established, listing of impaired streams and development of TMDLs, along with changes to permit limits, are harder to object to or change.

To find out where your regulatory agency is in the Triennial Review process, you may have to contact the agency directly if it is not posted on the website since this is a state-by-state endeavor.  Take the time to review standards that affect your facility and your receiving water body.  Understand why the changes are being proposed.  You can provide comments as an individual, company, industry association, or non-profit organization.

If you have any questions or need assistance navigating your state’s review process and determining how changes to the WQS could affect you, you can contact Karen Thompson at kthompson@all4inc.com.  Karen is located in our Kentucky Regional Office and has more than 25 years of experience in tracking WQS developments for industry.


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