Watershed-Based Permitting Case Study


Basinwide Planning and Permitting

Lead Agency:

NC Division of Water Quality
Point of Contact:

Darlene Kucken, Supervisor

NC Division of Water Quality, Basinwide Planning Unit

1617 Mail Service Center

Raleigh, NC 27699-1617

Phone: (919) 733-5083 ext. 354





The North Carolina Division of Water Quality (DWQ) em-
ploys a basinwide approach to protecting the state's water
resources; it undertakes planning, monitoring, modeling,
permitting, and compliance assessment activities at the
basin scale. DWQ prepares basinwide plans on a 5-year
cycle. The purpose of the plans is to frame a number of
water quality factors, including current conditions, po-
tential and existing threats, short- and long-range protec-
tion goals, and management options for both point and
nonpoint sources of pollutants.

This case study focuses on the history of North Carolina's
basinwide planning and permitting program and the plan-
ning process used along with the benefits of implementing
that process.


In an effort to improve the effectiveness and efficiency
of the state's water quality programs, DWQ developed a
draft program plan using a basinwide approach. The plan
evolved from a series of DWQ staff meetings and facilitat-
ed workshops in 1987 through 1989. The draft plan was
presented in a public hearing and was reviewed by the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). DWQ subse-
quently implemented a basinwide permitting schedule in
1990 and published a final, detailed, basinwide program
document in 1991. The program document, titled North
Carolina's Basinwide Approach to Water Quality Manage-
ment: Program Description, presented the state's original
objectives and rationale for basinwide management and
outlined the proposed procedures and time schedule for
implementing the program. The program has subsequent-
ly evolved and no longer operates as originally described.
The most recent information on the program is available
on the Basinwide Planning Program Web site.

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Watershed-Based Permitting Case Study

North C.A.rolih\A. Statewide Approach

has built into the approach the development of appropriate
management strategies to protect and restore water quality,
requirements to assure an equitable distribution of waste as-
similative capacity for dischargers, and requirements to im-
prove public awareness and involvement in the management
of surface waters. The planning process includes a synchro-
nized 5-year cycle of monitoring, planning, and permitting
for each of the 17 watersheds in the state.

The planning process is divided into three phases: Phase I
(years 1 and 2 of 5-year cycle), Phase II (years 2 and 3),
and Phase III (years 3-5). In Phase I, DWQ implements the
current basinwide plan in concert with key stakeholders.
The state may collect the following types of data during this
phase: ambient water quality monitoring, biological monitor-
ing, and other special study data.

During Phase II, DWQ analyzes the data collected in Phase
I to support or reject existing use ratings for the basin.
DWQ performs the following use assessments: aquatic life,
recreation, fish consumption, water supply, and shellfish
consumption. The state then compiles the use assessment
data into a Basin Assessment Report. Preliminary pollution
control strategies are developed during this phase through
coordination with local stakeholders and other agencies,
such as Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), the
Council of Governments, the North Carolina Cooperative Ex-
tension Service, local arms of the Natural Resources Conser-
vation Service (NRCS), and other stakeholder groups.

During the final phase of the basinwide planning process
(years 3-5), DWQ develops a draft basinwide plan on the
basis of water quality data, use-support ratings, and the
recommended strategies for controlling pollution. After the
draft plan is approved by the North Carolina Environmental
Management Commission for release to the public, DWQ
circulates the draft plan for review and presents it to the
public at public meetings at least one year before comple-
tion. The draft plan is open for public comment for at
least 30 days. DWQ then revises the plan accordingly and
presents it to the Environmental Management Commission
for approval. The plans are to be completed 4 to 6 months
before the scheduled date for basinwide permit renewals so
that the information contained in the plans can be used dur-
ing the renewal process. After the plans are approved, DWQ
coordinates with other agencies and local interest groups
to prioritize implementation actions outlined in the plans.
While DWQ coordinates the development of the plans, it
relies on local agencies and other stakeholders to imple-
ment the plans.

Each basin plan includes the following elements:

4 A description of the planning approach used

4 An overview of the watershed (i.e., hydrology, land
uses, local governments' jurisdictions)

4 Summaries of monitoring and use support ratings

4 Recommendations from previous plans, status
and explanation of achievements and goals or
recommendations for the next planning cycle

4 Current and future water quality initiatives and
implementation success stories by agency and
corporate, citizen, or academic groups

DWQ established a program coordinator position to be-
gin implementing the basinwide approach in 1992. DWQ
completed its first basinwide plan (Neuse River) in Febru-
ary 1993 and began issuing National Pollutant Discharge
Elimination System (NPDES) permits under the plan in April
1993. DWQ developed the first-round plans for each of the
17 watersheds in the state in 1998. The basinwide planning
process in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico watersheds confirmed
that significant, long-term water quality impacts were occur-
ring. Because of these determinations, DWQ applied the Nu-
trient Sensitive Waters status to these waters and developed
nutrient strategy rules.

Program and Resources

While the basinwide approach was conceived by the DWQ
staff and not as a result of any regulation or state policy, the
North Carolina legislature passed a bill in 1997 making the
program a requirement. The Clean Water Responsibility Act
(House Bill 515) required DWQ to continue implementing the
basinwide management program; however, the bill did not es-
tablish or provide financial or staff resources for the program.

Originally, DWQ employed one planner to manage the pro-
gram. Now, the program has four full-time basin planners
with each planner being responsible for four to five river ba-
sins. Each planner coordinates with other DWQ staff to pro-
vide monitoring and modeling data throughout the planning
process. In addition, the planners develop the use support
ratings for the watersheds and confirm with other sections
that the ratings are consistent with other staff research and
programs. Each planner personally drafts the basin plan and
coordinates the review and approval process.

Permitting Process

Basin planners meet with regional permit writers every 6
months at implementation meetings to discuss any new
issues related to dischargers (i.e., noncompliance, treatment
upgrades) and to determine how dischargers can impact use
support ratings. Planners also review discharge monitoring
reports. Permit writers use the plans during permit renewal
to determine if any changes need to be made to the permit
provisions, such as effluent limitations or facility monitoring


Watershed-Based Permitting Case Study

North C.A.rolih\A. Statewide Approach

Public Involvement

In 2000 DWQ released the document, A Citizen's Guide
to Water Quality Management in North Carolina, to bet-
ter explain the basinwide planning process to the public.
DWQ held public workshops when developing the first cycle
of basinwide plans. Now DWQ solicits public input more
consistently through continuous coordination with local
watershed groups, SWCDs, cooperative extension agencies,
federal agencies, and others. DWQ informally circulates the
draft among these groups prior to it being formally submitted
to the Environmental Management Commission for release to
the public at large. DWQ advertises the release of the plan
in newspapers, through direct mailings, and on its Web site.
DWQ distributes the draft plans via its Web site, compact
disc, and hard copy. In January 2007, a second edition of
the document, Basinwide Planning Program: Supplemental
Guide to North Carolina's Basinwide Planning: Support
Document for Basinwide Water Quality Plans was released.
It is intended to provide general information about water
quality issues in the State of North Carolina. It also provides
updated program descriptions and identifies several best
management practices (BMPs) that protect water quality.

Factors Considered During Development

According to the Program Description, the rationale for the
basinwide approach was to achieve improved efficiency,
increased effectiveness, and consistency and equitability.

Improved Efficiency

The basinwide approach was designed to increase adminis-
trative efficiency through targeting staff resources, fund-
ing, information transfer and database management, and
consolidating survey and reporting requirements mandated
by the Clean Water Act.

The approach was designed to focus travel, sampling and
public involvement efforts in one part of the state at a given
time. This resource concentration would then increase
sampling coverage and public participation. The basinwide
approach also called for a synchronization of NPDES permits
issued by watershed which would balance the number to
be issued each year and allow waste load allocations to be
distributed to point source dischargers at the same time in
watersheds where total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) were
developed. Finally the basinwide process was designed to
minimize the redundancy of Clean Water Act reporting and
survey requirements such as the following:

4 Section 210—Annual survey to determine efficiency
of treatment works operation and maintenance

4 Section 302—requirement to develop "alternative ef-
fluent control strategies to control point sources for the
restoration of water quality to the desired level"

4 Section 303(d)—requirement to establish TMDLs for
a priority list of nonattainment waters

4 Section 303(e)—calls for area-wide planning process
which considers point and nonpoint source pollutants

4 Section 305(b)—requires biennial reporting on the
use support, status of surface waters and the achieve-
ments of the regulatory program and general assess-
ment guidelines

4 Section 314 (a)—requires biennial reporting on the
nutrient status of lakes

4 Section 319(a)—requires State Management Plans for
identification and priority setting of waters impacted
by nonpoint source pollution

The North Carolina program was designed to consolidate
these and other requirements into the basinwide planning

Increased Effectiveness

The second basis for initiating the basinwide approach in
North Carolina was the desire to increase the overall effec-
tiveness of existing programs by becoming more consistent
with basic ecological principles of watershed manage-
ment. The approach requires that linkages between aquatic
resources and point and nonpoint sources and the poten-
tial impacts from their interaction are considered. Existing
programs (i.e., monitoring, regulatory programs, bioas-
sessments, modeling, compliance and enforcement) would
be combined into a comprehensive planning approach.

This planning approach would then be formalized into the
paradigm of the Division. Several new initiatives were also
proposed in the Program Description that would increase the
effectiveness of water quality assessment and management.
These initiatives, proposed in 1991, were as follows:

4 Developing basinwide water quality models to address
the potential interactive effects of multiple pollutants
and dischargers

4 Evaluating trends by basin

4 Establishing TMDLs

4 Developing basinwide plans to address point and
nonpoint source pollution

4 Implementing innovative management strategies such
as agency banking assimilative capacity, pollution
trading, and industrial recruitment mapping

Consistency and Equitability

Finally, the basinwide planning process was designed to
facilitate consistent decision making and focus management


Watershed-Based Permitting Case Study

North C.A.rolih\A. Statewide Approach

decisions by clearly defining long-term goals. This consis-
tency would then promote equitable distribution of assimi-
lative capacity including potential trading among sources
and allowances for future growth. Further, developing plans
and presenting them consistently would allow policymak-
ers and the public to better comprehend and evaluate the
"background, methods, and rationale for management deci-
sions, thereby creating a more stable foundation for future
planning" (Creager 1991).

Program Effectiveness

The basinwide planning process has evolved since its
inception, as has the format for the plans themselves. This
evolution has resulted in a more effective planning process
and a more useful plan format. The DWQ is in the process of
completing the third round of basinwide plans, and, through
the years, the planning and use support rating process has
often provided the impetus for implementation projects by
providing a justification for funding (i.e., grants). Planners
often help local agencies or watershed groups apply for grant
funding and use the findings and assessments included in
the plans as the basis for the requests.

Further, according to A Citizen's Guide to Water Quality
Management in North Carolina, the goals behind develop-
ment of the program in 1991 have been realized—improved

efficiency by focusing on one river basin at a time; increased
effectiveness because of consistency with basic ecological
principles; better consistency and equability during decision
making regarding permits and water quality improvement
strategies through long range planning, increased public
participation in water quality protection programs, and
increased integration of point and nonpoint source assess-
ment and management programs. In addition, the approach
presents water quality issues in a greater number of man-
agement units defined both geographically and temporally.
The 5-year planning interval provides a realistic time frame
for evaluating the effectiveness of pollution management

Lessons Learned & Next Steps

According to the supervisor of the Basinwide Planning Unit,
Darlene Kucker, the most challenging part of administering
the basinwide planning program is also a positive aspect—
there are numerous people, groups, and agencies involved
in watershed management in North Carolina and each might
not have consistent or complementary goals and objectives.
It is sometimes difficult to find common priorities and make
measurable progress toward achieving those goals. Ideally,
Ms. Kucker would like to double the number of planners on
her staff to better enable them to engage at the local level
and coordinate resources.


Creager, C.S. and J.R Baker. North Carolina Division of Water Quality. 1991. North Carolina's Basinwide Approach to Water
Quality Management: Program Description.

North Carolina Division of Water Quality. 2000. A Citizen's Guide to Water Quality Management in North Carolina.

Note: All Web references current as of July 6, 2007.