United States
         Environmental Protection
 Office of Water

EPA 820-B-15-001

 January 2015
Water Quality Standards Handbook

Chapter 7: Water Quality Standards and
the Water Quality-based Approach to
Pollution Control

Water Quality Standards Handbook
Chapter 7: Water Quality Standards and the Water Quality-based
Approach to Pollution Control
Table of Contents
Introduction	1
7.1 Establish Water Quality Standards	2
7.2 Monitor Water Quality and Assess the Extent to Which Waters Meet Water Quality
Standards	3
  7.2.1 Monitor Water Quality	3
  7.2.2 Assess the Extent to Which Waters Meet Water Quality Standards	4
7.3 Identify and Rank Impaired and Threatened Waters	5
7.4 Determine Pollutant  Loading Capacity and Allocations	6
7.5 Establish Point and Nonpoint Source Controls	7
  7.5.1 Point Source Controls:  the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System
  Permitting Process	7
  7.5.2 Nonpoint Source Controls	8
  7.5.3 Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification	9
7.6 Monitor and Ensure Compliance	10
7.7 Measure Progress	11


The Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes complementary technology-based and water quality-based
approaches to water pollution control. The technology-based approach establishes uniform
minimum technology-based requirements through effluent limitations guidelines, where available, or
"best professional judgement" for non-municipal dischargers and secondary treatment requirements
for publicly owned treatment works based on the capabilities of available technologies to control
pollutant discharges. The water quality-based approach emphasizes the overall quality of water
within a waterbody and provides a mechanism by which states and authorized tribes control the
amount of pollution entering the waterbody based on the intrinsic conditions of that waterbody and
the water quality standards (WQS) they establish to protect it.1

This chapter describes the water quality-based approach to pollution control and its relationship to
WQS. Specifically,  Section 7.1 describes establishing WQS under CWA Section 303(c), and Section 7.2
describes monitoring and assessment of waters based on such WQS through the CWA Section 303(d)
listing program. Section 7.3 describes identifying and ranking waters that do not  meet WQS through
the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and CWA Section 303(d)  listing programs. Section 7.4
describes establishing  point and nonpoint source pollutant allocations through the TMDL program.
Section 7.5 describes establishing point source controls through the National Pollutant Discharge
Elimination System (NPDES) and CWA Section 401 certification programs as well as establishing state
and tribal nonpoint source control programs developed,  in part, pursuant to CWA Section 31 9.
Section 7.6 describes monitoring to assess attainment of WQS through NPDES controls on point
sources and implementation of state and tribal nonpoint source programs. Section 7.7 describes
measuring progress of program performance by states, tribes, and the EPA. Figure 7.1 illustrates the
overall water quality-based approach  to pollution control.
1 Throughout this document, the term "states" means the fifty states, the District of Columbia, the
Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The term "authorized tribe" or "tribe" means an
Indian tribe authorized for treatment in a manner similar to a state under CWA Section 51 8 for
purposes of Section  303(c) WQS.

                                      I. Establish WQS
                                      WQS program
              7. Measure
           States, authorized
          tribes, and the EPA
           2. Monitor water
          quality and assess
          the extent to which
          waters meet WQS
          Listing and TMDL
      6. Monitor and
     ensure compliance
      NPDES Program
                  3. Identify and rank
                     impaired and
                   threatened waters
                   Listing and TMDL
                       5. Establish point
                         and nonpoint
                        source controls
                        NPDES and CWA
                       Sections 401 and
                         31 9 programs
  4. Determine
pollutant loading
  capacity and
Listing and TMDL
 Figure 7.1: The Water Quality-based Approach to Pollution Control
7.1  Establish Water Quality Standards

WQS are the foundation of the water quality-based approach to pollution control. WQS establish the
water quality goals and define the level of protection for state and tribal waters. Once WQS are
established, they form the basis for implementing other CWA programs, putting into place necessary
pollution controls, and measuring progress toward achieving CWA goals. Once a state or authorized

tribe has established WQS, the water quality-based approach has begun.

The preceding chapters of this Handbook provide detailed information on WQS. In particular, refer to
Chapter 2  for information on designated uses, Chapter 3 for information on water quality criteria,
and Chapter 4 for information on antidegradation. Also see the EPA's Water Quality Standards for
Surface Waters webpaqe.
7.2  Monitor Water Quality and Assess the Extent to Which Waters Meet Water
Quality Standards

Once states and authorized tribes have defined water quality goals and adopted WQS (and the EPA
has approved them under CWA Section 303(c)), they conduct water quality monitoring and use the
data generated from such monitoring to assess whether their waters meet WQS.

7.2.1 Monitor Water Quality

In accordance with CWA Section 1 06(e)(l) and 40 CFR 1 30.4. states and authorized tribes establish
appropriate monitoring methods and procedures necessary to compile and analyze data on the
quality of their waters. Monitoring is an important element in the water quality-based approach
because state and tribal monitoring programs provide the data necessary to characterize waters and
support a range of CWA decision needs including the  following:

       Assessing the extent to which state and tribal waters meet WQS.
       Developing, reviewing, and revising WQS.
       Identifying impaired or threatened waters.
       Establishing TMDLs.
       Supporting development of water quality-based effluent limits (WQBELs).
       Tracking trends in water quality over time.
       Identifying emerging problems.

States and tribes develop and maintain monitoring strategies that describe how monitoring
objectives will be met as well as the necessary resources for implementation. For  each waterbody
type, these strategies include objectives, designs, indicators, quality assurance, data management,
analysis and assessment, reporting, resources and infrastructure, and programmatic evaluation.
Such state and tribal strategies generally identify monitoring gaps, help set monitoring priorities,
and guide program enhancement funding from Section 106  Monitoring Initiative grants (e.g., new
state laboratory capacities, fish tissue monitoring, data management, new biological monitoring
protocols and index development). Some states and tribes have used their strategies and the
identification of monitoring gaps to secure additional monitoring funding through legislative
mandates. For additional information on monitoring strategies, see the EPA's Elements of a State
Water Monitor/no and Assessment Program (2003)).

The EPA recommends that states and tribes implement comprehensive monitoring programs that
include statistical survey designs to report on the conditions of all waters as well as targeted
monitoring to address specific programmatic needs (e.g., NPDES permits, TMDLs).

For more information on monitoring, see the EPA's Monitoring and Assessing Water Quality webpage
and Consolidated Assessment and Listing Methodology - Toward a Compendium of Best Practices
(2002). Additionally, The Strategy for Improving Water Quality Monitoring in the United States - Final
Report of the Intergovernmental Task Force on Monitoring Water Quality (1995) proposes actions to
improve ambient water quality monitoring in the United States to allow better management of water

7.2.2 Assess the Extent to Which Waters Meet Water Quality Standards

Typically, states  and authorized  tribes utilize both existing information and new data collected
from ongoing monitoring programs to assess whether their waters meet WQS and identify water
quality trends over time. States and tribes assess their waters for a variety of other purposes
including targeting restoration activities, documenting the extent of contamination at potential
Superfund sites,  and  meeting federally mandated  reporting requirements in accordance with CWA
Sections 304(1), 305(b), 314(a), and 319.

States and tribes develop assessment methodologies to describe their decision-making processes
for interpreting water quality data and determining WQS attainment. States and tribes may have
different methods for identifying and compiling information  on the status of their waterbodies
depending on specific programmatic needs and organizational arrangements.  The methodology
generally explains the following:

       The  methods by which the state or tribe identifies and  solicits all existing and readily
       available data and  information.
       The  quality assurance and quality control criteria the state or tribe uses to evaluate  data and
       information submitted by outside entities to determine the validity and applicability of such
       data and information.
       The  analytical approaches including statistical analyses the state or tribe uses to infer true
       segment conditions from all valid existing and readily available data and information.

Describing the decision-making processes in the assessment methodology provides stakeholders
with the opportunity  to understand how the state or tribe makes its assessment decisions.

For more information on assessment, see Section IV of the EPA's 2006 Integrated Reporting
Guidance. Additionally, to  learn the condition of local streams, lakes, and other waters anywhere in
the United States, see the EPA's  How's My Waterway?webpaQe.

7.3  Identify and Rank Impaired and Threatened Waters

In accordance with Section 303(d) of the CWA. 40 CFR Part 1 30 establishes requirements for the
process by which states and authorized tribes identify an impaired waterbody that is not meeting
any applicable state or tribal WQS including designated uses, numeric and narrative water quality
criteria, and  antidegradation requirements.

States and tribes must identify any waterbodies that do not meet applicable WQS on their Section
303(d) lists of impaired waters as well as establish priority rankings and develop TMDLs for such
waters. In addition to the Section 303(d) list, the CWA requires that each state and tribe report every
two years on the health of all of its waters (known as the Section 305(b) report or "biennial water
quality report"), not just those that are impaired. The EPA recommends that states and tribes
combine the Section 303(d) list with the Section 305(b) report to create an "integrated  report." which
is due to the EPA by April 1 of each even-numbered year.

When using the integrated reporting  approach, the EPA recommends that states and tribes report on
the status of all waterbodies in the following five categories:

    1.  All designated uses are supported, and no use is threatened.
   2.  Available data and/or information indicate that some, but not all, of the designated uses are
   3.  There is insufficient available data and/or information to make a designated use support
   4.  Available data and/or information indicate that at least  one designated use is not being
       supported or is threatened, but a TMDL is not needed.
         4a. A state- or tribe- developed TMDL has been approved by the EPA, or a TMDL has
          been established by the EPA for any segment-pollutant combination.
         4b. Other required control measures are expected to result in the attainment of an
          applicable WQS in a reasonable period of time.
         4c. The non-attainment of any applicable WQS for the segment is the result of  pollution
          and is not caused by a pollutant.
   5.  Available data and/or information indicate that at least  one designated use is not being
       supported or is threatened, and a TMDL is needed.

Category 5 constitutes the state's or tribe's Section 303(d) list.

For more information on integrated reporting, refer to the EPA's 2006 Integrated Reporting
Guidance. Also see the EPA's integrated reporting guidance repository.

A state's priority ranking for TMDL development must take into account the severity of the pollution
and the uses to be made of such waters. Priority ranking has traditionally been a process defined  by

the state or tribe and may vary in complexity and design. A priority ranking should enable the state
or tribe to make efficient use of its available resources.

In December 201 3, the EPA announced a new collaborative framework for implementing the Section
303(d) program with states and tribes: A Long-Term Vision for Assessment, Restoration, and
Protection under the Clean Water Act Section 303(d) Program. The new program vision details the
enhancements that the EPA made to the Section  303(d) program, which were informed by the
experience gained over the past two decades in assessing and reporting on water quality and in
developing approximately 65,000 TMDLs. The new vision enhances overall efficiency of the Section
303(d) program and, in particular, encourages states and tribes to focus attention on priority waters.
The program vision  also provides states and tribes flexibility in using available tools including, but
not limited to, TMDLs to attain and  maintain WQS. States and tribes may consider priorities for
restoration as well as protection.

For additional information on the vision for the Section 303(d) program, see the EPA's CWA Section
303(d) Program Vision webpage.

Once states and authorized tribes have identified and prioritized  impaired waterbodies forTMDL
development, they may decide to re-evaluate the appropriateness of the WQS for such waters during
their WQS triennial review or TMDL development processes.
7.4 Determine Pollutant Loading Capacity and Allocations

Once states and authorized tribes have established appropriate WQS and identified and ranked
impaired waterbodies, they calculate pollutant budgets for the impaired waterbodies and
allocate pollutant shares among point and nonpoint sources.

The CWA and 40 CFR 1 30.7(c) require that states and tribes establish TMDLs for the
waterbodies listed on their CWA Section 303(d) lists in accordance with their priority rankings. A
TMDL is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can receive while
still meeting its applicable WQS. Pollutant loadings above this amount generally will result in the
waterbody not attaining WQS. In many cases, the TMDL analysis is the trigger for determining
the source(s) of pollutants. TMDLs quantify pollutant sources and allocate allowable pollutant
loads to the contributing point sources through wasteload allocations and  nonpoint sources
through load allocations, which may include both anthropogenic and  natural background sources of
a pollutant. A TMDL may contain only wasteload allocations, only load allocations, or a
combination of both types of allocations. A TMDL also includes a margin of safety to account for
the uncertainty in predicting how well pollutant reductions will result  in attaining WQS. A TMDL
also accounts for seasonal variations.

States and tribes should consider the extent  of pollution problems (including effects on

downstream waters) and sources when defining the geographic area for TMDL development.
Many water pollution  concerns are area-wide phenomena caused by multiple dischargers,
multiple pollutants (with potential synergistic and additive effects),  re-mobilization of
contaminants buried in sediment, or nonpoint sources such as runoff. Atmospheric deposition
and groundwater discharge may also result in significant pollutant  loadings to surface waters.
As a result, the EPA recommends that states and tribes develop TMDLs on a watershed basis to
manage holistically the quality of surface waters. This approach also supports sound
environmental management and efficient use of limited  resources.  In cases where states and
tribes develop TMDLs on a watershed basis, they should  also consider organizing NPDES
permitting cycles such that all permits in a given watershed expire at the same time.

The EPA has developed a number of specialized models  and tools, including those listed on the
EPA's Water Quality Models webpaqe. to assist water quality managers in developing TMDLs,
wasteload allocations, and watershed protection plans. Additional information can also be found
through the EPA's Watershed and Water Quality Modeling Technical Support Center.

The following links provide additional EPA information on TMDLs:

       Impaired Waters and Total Maximum Daily Loads webpaqe.
       Section 303(d) program guidance webpage.
       TMDL technical support documents webpage.
       Guidance for Water Quality-based Decisions: The TMDL Process (1 991).
       TMDL Program Results Ana/ys/swebpaQe.
7.5  Establish Point and Nonpoint Source Controls

Once states and authorized tribes have established appropriate WQS, they implement source control
actions to manage pollutant loadings. Such actions can be implemented for impaired waters  before
or after TMDL development. Generally, states, tribes, and the EPA regulate point sources through the
NPDES permitting program. Federal, state and local government agencies, private  land managers,
and landowners manage nonpoint sources through state and tribal  laws and local  ordinances. States
and tribes may also use the CWA Section 401 certification  process to ensure that federal permits and
licenses are adequate to maintain state and tribal WQS.

7.5.1  Point Source  Controls: the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permitting

In accordance with 40 CFR 1 22.1 (b). the NPDES program generally requires permits for the
discharge of pollutants from any point source into waters of the United States.2 An NPDES permit is
 Section 402 of the CWA establishes the NPDES program. Note that the CWA provides exemptions

a license for a facility to discharge a specified amount of a pollutant into a receiving waterbody
under certain conditions. An NPDES permit provides the following two types of control:

       Technology-based effluent limits based on the pollutant reductions in effluents that can be
       achieved through application of specified levels of technology controls, taking into account
       the technological and economic ability of dischargers to control the discharge of pollutants
       in wastewater.
       WQBELs established to meet the WQS that protect the quality of the specific waterbody
       receiving the discharge.

By analyzing the effect of a discharge on the receiving waterbody, a permit writer could find that
technology-based effluent limits alone will not achieve the applicable WQS. In such cases, Section
301(b)(l)(C)ofthe CWA and  40 CFR 122.44(d) require development of WQBELs. WQBELs must derive
from and comply with all applicable WQS and be consistent with the assumptions and requirements
of any available wasteload allocation (e.g., a TMDL wasteload allocation).

WQBELs establish the level of effluent quality necessary to protect water quality in the receiving
waterbody in order to ensure attainment of  WQS. Allowable loadings are often developed as
allowable wasteload allocations for specific  point sources of pollutants, and WQBELs are then derived
from these wasteload allocations and incorporated into NPDES permits. It is important to ensure that
WQBELs account for the fact that effluent quality is often highly variable. WQBELs may be determined
from a TMDL's wasteload allocation or calculated for an individual point source directly from the
applicable WQS. Wasteload allocations and WQBELs are both designed to prevent exceedances of

The following links provide additional EPA information on NPDES permitting:

       NPDES Permit Program Basics web page.
       NPDES Permit Writers' Manual (2010).
        Technical Support Document for Water Quality-based Toxics Control(\ 991).
       Watershed-based NPDES Permitting web page.
       Water Quality Trading web page.

7.5.2  Nonpoint Source Controls

In addition to permits  for point sources,  states and authorized tribes implement nonpoint source
controls such as management measures  or  best management practices to meet surface water quality
objectives (e.g., WQS and TMDL load allocations).

Section 31 9 of the CWA establishes a national program to control nonpoint sources  of water
pollution in accordance with the Section  1 01 (a)(7) goal that "...programs for the control of nonpoint
sources of pollution be developed and implemented in an expeditious manner so as to enable the

for certain types of point sources.

goals of this Act to be met through the control of both point and nonpoint sources of pollution."
Section 31 9(a) requires states and tribes to develop nonpoint source assessment reports that identify
nonpoint source pollution problems and sources responsible for water quality impairments. Section
31 9(b) further requires states and tribes to adopt nonpoint source management programs to control
nonpoint source pollution. These programs should articulate each state's or tribe's strategy to
address nonpoint source pollution and to attain and  maintain WQS. Such state and tribal nonpoint
source management programs provide the foundation for addressing nonpoint source pollution.

To address waterbodies impaired or threatened by nonpoint source pollution, the EPA recommends
that states and tribes implement their nonpoint source management programs and generally ensure
implementation of control measures or practices by all significant contributors of nonpoint source
pollution to the watersheds. The EPA's funding guidelines for providing Section 31 9 grants to states and
tribes includes the expectation that watershed projects funded by Section 31 9 funds will follow the
development of local watershed plans. These plans are required to address nine elements, one of which is a
determination that the best management practices will be sufficient to meet WQS or help implement TMDL
load allocations for the waterbody. Best management practices are the primary mechanism in Section
31 9 to enable attainment of WQS. The nine elements are described in both Nonpoint Source Program
and Grants Guidelines for States and Territories (2013) and Handbook for Developing Watershed Plans to
Restore and Protect Our Waters (2 008).

Additional information on nonpoint source pollution  and Section 31 9 is available on the EPA's Clean
Water Act Section J/ffwebpage and Polluted Runoff: Nonpoint Source Pollution webpage.

Section 621 7 of the Coastal Zone Reauthorization Amendments of 1 990 requires that states with
federally approved coastal zone management programs develop coastal  nonpoint pollution control
programs that are approved by the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
For additional information, see the EPA's Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments Section 6217

7.5.3 Clean Water Act Section  401  Water Quality Certification

Section 401 of the CWA provides that a federal agency cannot issue a permit or license that may
result in a discharge to waters of the United States unless the state or authorized tribe where the
discharge would originate certifies that the discharge is consistent with certain CWA provisions as
well as other appropriate provisions of state or tribal law. When making a water quality certification
decision, a state or tribe may grant certification, grant certification with conditions, deny certification,
or waive certification. Where the state or tribe has conditioned its Section 401 certification, each condition
becomes a term of the federal permit or license (if it is issued).

The most common types of federal permits and licenses subject to Section 401 include the following:

      NPDES permits for point source discharges issued by the EPA under Section 402.
      Permits for the discharge of dredged or fill material issued by the Army Corps of Engineers
       under Section 404.

       Permits for activities in navigable waters that may affect navigation issued by the Army Corps
       of Engineers under Sections 9 and 1 0 of the Rivers and  Harbors Act.
       Licenses required for hydroelectric projects issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory
       Commission under the Federal Power Act.

Congress intended for states and tribes to use the Section 401  certification process to ensure that no
federal license or permits would be issued that would violate water quality objectives. Specifically,
when  evaluating whether to grant, condition, or deny a Section 401 certification, states and tribes
consider whether the discharge, if authorized, would be consistent with effluent limitations for
conventional and nonconventional  pollutants,  WQS, new source performance standards, and toxic
pollutants (under Sections 301, 302, 303, 306, and 307). Section 401 also allows states  and tribes
to consider requirements of state  or tribal law that may be more protective than the CWA when
making a certification decision.

Protection of state and tribal WQS is the main  goal of the Section 401 certification process. If a
state  or tribe grants water quality certification to an applicant for a federal license or permit, it  is
saying, in effect, that the proposed activity will comply with state or tribal WQS (and the other
appropriate CWA and state or tribal law provisions). If a state  or tribe denies certification, the
federal permitting or licensing agency is prohibited from issuing  a permit or license.

For additional information on Section 401 water quality certification, see the EPA's Water Quality
and 40] Certification webpage and Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification: A Water
Quality Protection Tool For States and Tribes (2010).
7.6 Monitor and Ensure Compliance

As previously noted, monitoring is a crucial element of water quality-based decision making.
Once states and authorized tribes establish appropriate point and nonpoint source controls, monitoring
provides the data used to assess compliance with water quality-based controls and for
evaluating whether TMDLs and control actions based on such TMDLs attain WQS.

With point sources, NPDES dischargers are required to  provide discharge monitoring reports,
which provide a key source of effluent quality data for  purposes of ensuring compliance with
NPDES permits. In some instances, the permitting authority may also require dischargers to
assess the impact of their discharges on the receiving water by collecting ambient monitoring
data in the receiving water. Such ambient monitoring requirements can be placed into a permit
as a special condition  as long as the information is collected for purposes of developing a permit

Based on a review of the data, the permitting authority determines whether an NPDES discharger
has complied with the requirements of its permit. If a discharger has apparent violations, the

permitting authority may review the discharger's compliance history, focusing on the magnitude,
duration, and frequency of violations, and determine the appropriate enforcement response. The
EPA, states, tribes, and citizens are authorized to bring civil or criminal action against NPDES
dischargers that violate their permits.

In the case of nonpoint sources, states and tribes should ensure that effective monitoring programs
are  in place for evaluating nonpoint source control measures. The EPA recognizes monitoring as a
high-priority activity in a state's or tribe's nonpoint source management program and encourages
states and tribes to use innovative  monitoring programs (e.g., rapid bioassessments and volunteer
monitoring) to provide adequate point and nonpoint source monitoring coverage. Additionally, EPA
guidance on nonpoint source management plans and funding watershed plans with CWA Section
31 9 funds have placed a heavy emphasis on managing  nonpoint source pollution on a watershed
basis. As a result, monitoring the effectiveness of nonpoint source pollution control activities is
usually a part of the watershed approach used by state, tribal, and local organizations,  universities,
and local landowners and land managers (see the EPA's Watershed Academy webpage for
information on the watershed approach). The EPA also provides guidance to state, tribal, and local
watershed efforts through its national nonpoint source monitoring program.

State and tribal nonpoint source programs are enforced under state and tribal law.

For  more information on point and  nonpoint source monitoring, see the EPA's Clean Water Act
Compliance Monitoring webpage and  Nonpoint Source Monitoring Guidance (1 997). See also the
EPA's Water Programs Databases and Tools webpaqe.
7.7 Measure Progress

States and authorized tribes (and the EPA) measure progress and evaluate program performance by
applying several approaches to measure progress in a cost-effective manner. One approach is
tracking program activities such as permit issuance, development of TMDLs to guide restoration of
impaired waters, and development of watershed protection plans to prioritize actions to both protect
healthy waters and improve degraded waters. Another approach is water quality monitoring to track
conditions over time and compare them to baseline conditions.

The EPA, states, and tribes apply monitoring resources strategically to track progress as cost-
effectively as possible. At a local scale, monitoring activities are targeted to assess the effectiveness
of the specific controls and determine whether WQS have been attained or additional controls are
necessary to attain WQS. This targeted monitoring may be part of an ongoing, fixed-site network or
undertaken as a special study depending on the characteristics of the problem and the  available

To complement the targeted monitoring, states and tribes conduct statistical surveys of water
resource conditions, which allows them to understand the quality of waters across the state or Indian
reservation using an unbiased, representative sample. Such surveys also allow states and tribes to
track the extent of the waters that meet WQS and whether water quality is generally improving over

For more information on protecting and restoring watersheds as well as EPA strategies that will drive
progress toward clean water goals, see the EPA's National Water Program: Strategic Plan and
Guidance webpage. which describes the EPA's five-year strategic plan and the national water
program's annual guidance.