The Federal Water Pollution Control Act, commonly referred to as the Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed in 1972 and amended in 1977, and is the foundation for surface water quality protection in the United States. The CWA was enacted to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of the nation’s waters. In brief, the CWA requires states to set standards for surface water quality and requires public and private facilities to acquire permits for discharging wastewater.
At the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for administering the water quality standards outlined in the CWA. At the state level, the EPA delegates water quality management to the specific state environmental agency. In Texas, it is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The TCEQ is the primary water quality agency in Texas and is responsible for establishing water quality standards, for planning how water quality will be managed, for issuing permits for point source dischargers, and for abating all types of nonpoint source pollution except those from agricultural and silvicultural (forestry) sources. Nonpoint source pollution originates from multiple locations and is carried primarily by precipitation runoff, while point source pollution can be traced to a specific location and point of discharge (i.e., pipe or ditch).
In 1991, the Texas Legislature delegated some water quality authority to the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB). The TSSWCB is responsible for administering Texas’ soil and water conservation law and for managing programs for the prevention and abatement of agricultural and silvicultural nonpoint source pollution.
In compliance with Section 303(d) of the CWA, the TCEQ must report to the EPA the extent to which each surface water body is meeting water quality standards. The report must be submitted every 2 years and is comprised of two different parts: 1) Texas Water Quality Inventory (TWQI); and 2) CWA 303(d) List. The TWQI describes the status of all surface water bodies in the state that were evaluated and monitored over the most recent 7-year period. The TWQI is the basis for the 303(d) List that identifies all impaired surface bodies of water that do not meet water quality standards. Water quality standards specify numeric levels of water quality criteria such as bacteria, temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, and others that can be measured in a lake, river, or stream without impairing the beneficial or designated use(s) assigned to that water body. Designated uses include contact and noncontact recreation, aquatic life, and public drinking water supply.
The CWA requires the development of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for waters on the 303(d) List within 13 years of being listed. If the state does not develop a TMDL within the required time limit, the EPA will. A TMDL is a calculation of the pollutant reductions necessary to restore the impaired water body to its designated use(s). Both the TCEQ and TSSWCB are responsible for developing TMDLs in Texas. All TMDLs must be approved by TCEQ Commissioners before submission to EPA. TMDLs involving agricultural or silvicultural issues must be approved by the TSSWCB before submission to EPA.
According to the 2020 Texas Water Quality Inventory and 303(d) List, 1009 waterbodies were impaired in Texas. Of these, approximately one-third of the impairments are due to excessive bacteria. As of spring 2020, there have been 294 TMDLs adopted/WPP accepted in Texas.
Once a TMDL is complete, TCEQ or TSSWCB develops a TMDL Implementation Plan (I-Plan). The TMDL I-Plan provides a detailed description of the a) regulatory measures, b) voluntary management measures, and c) parties responsible for carrying out identified measures needed to restore the waterbody quality in accordance with the TMDL. Regulatory measures are typically only applicable to point sources such as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) or wastewater discharges; however, regulatory nonpoint source measures are in place in some watersheds across the nation. Unlike the actual TMDL, the I-Plan only requires approval from the TCEQ Commissioners or the TSSWCB, but not EPA approval.
In some watersheds, the development and implementation of a Watershed Protection Plan (WPP) may be a more viable approach to achieving restoration of water quality than through the establishment of a TMDL. A WPP is a community-driven framework that uses the watershed approach to solve complex water quality problems in a watershed. WPPs are developed and managed through partnerships among federal and state agencies and local groups and organizations. They rely heavily on stakeholder involvement at the local level. The EPA created a guide to assisst communities, watershed organizations, and local, state, and federal agencies develop and implement WPPs. The “Handbook for Developing Watershed Plans to Restore and Protect Our Waters” outlines 9 key elements that each WPP should contain:
- Causes and sources of the water quality problem
- Load reductions needed to restore water quality
- Management measures needed to achieve the load reductions
- Technical and financial assistance needed to implement the management measures
- Information and education programs needed
- Schedule for implementation
- Implementation milestones
- Criteria to determine success
- Monitoring needed to determine effectiveness of implementation
The main difference between a WPP and a TMDL is that TMDLs are regulatory in nature, meaning they are required by federal law. WPPs are voluntary programs and are not mandated by federal law. In general, WPPs are a way of restoring water quality, removing the body of water from the 303(d) List, and avoiding regulatory action in a watershed. In some cases, however, development of a TMDL is unavoidable especially if the impairment is seen as an emergency situation.
Bacterial impairments come from a variety of sources and everyone can help reduce the bacteria levels in Texas waterways by adoption of specific BMPs relative to their production system. The Lone Star Healthy Streams program is here to assist landowners in achieving the worthy goal of keeping Texas waters safe and clean.