Managing Non-point Source Water Pollution

Posted on 2/9/2016 by Anthony Cardno

Section 319 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes a national program to control non-point sources of water pollution. This program requires states to develop non-point source assessment reports and to implement non-point source management programs under Federal supervision and financial support.

But what exactly IS “non-point source” pollution?

Identifying a “Point Source” for NPDES Permitting

When we think about water pollution, we usually picture a single “point source”—like a pipe emptying into a river. In the Clean Water Act, EPA defines a “point source” as:
“any discernible, confined, discrete conveyance, including but not limited to, any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, landfill leachate collection system, vessel or other floating craft from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” [40 CFR 122.2]
Simply put, if you can clearly identify where the pollutants enter the water, you have a point source.

Under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), EPA requires any person who discharges, or intends to discharge, pollutants through a point source into the waters of the United States to apply for a permit for the discharge. But what about pollution that occurs in a way that makes it impossible to identify a single point-source?

EPA Non point source water pollution

Identifying Non-point Sources

When pollutants get in the water and we cannot identify a single entry-point, it’s called non-point source pollution. Non-point source pollution generally results from land runoff, precipitation, atmospheric deposition, drainage, or seepage. Non-source pollution can also refer to pollution from a source that’s excluded from the NPDES permitting requirement.

Non-point source pollution can include pesticide seepage into the groundwater supply, salt from winter de-icing operations running into surface waters, sump seepage contaminating local drinking water supplies, sediment from logging roads, and wetland drainage and soil erosion from construction projects. If you cannot clearly identify where the pollutants are entering the water, you likely have a non-point source.

How States Regulate Non-point Sources

There are no Federal regulations for controlling non-point source pollution under the Clean Water Act. However, under Section 319 of the Act, US EPA requires each state to file assessment reports and develop management strategies to control non-point source pollution. In their assessment reports, states identify waters that cannot reasonably be expected to attain or maintain water quality standards (WQS) set under Federal standards at 40 CFR 131 without additional action to control non-point source pollution. State assessments identify:
  • Significant sources of non-point source pollution;
  • Processes used (for example, public or government meetings) to identify methods for controlling those sources; and
  • State and local programs in place for controlling those sources.
For an example of a State Assessment report, here’s the 2014 report from Texas—“Managing Nonpoint Source Pollution in Texas,” completed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Texas State Soil & Water Conservation Board.

State Management Plans for Non-point Source Pollution

It is the state’s responsibility to develop a management plan to address non-point source pollution. The plan must identify best management practices (BMPs) to be implemented, must describe the programs needed to achieve implementation of BMPs, must establish a schedule for compliance with the plan, and may include other information as deemed necessary by the state or by US EPA.

Examples of steps states have taken under their non-point source pollution management plans include, but are not limited to:
  • Developing and enforcing local ordinances to prevent stormwater discharge (beyond the US EPA permitting requirements);
  • Issuing erosion control standards for construction projects that are not subject to NPDES stormwater permitting requirements;
  • Installing non-point source controls to reduce agriculture runoff; and
  • Improving animal waste systems to reduce livestock pollutant production.
Non-point source water pollution is a great example of how Federal and State environmental authorities divide the responsibility of protecting the waters of the United States. It’s also a useful reminder that, even when the Federal regulations don’t spell out specific requirements, it pays to be familiar with your state’s rules as well.

Expert Training for New and Experience Environmental Pros

Get comfortable working with the US EPA regulations that affect your facility. Since 1997, the Complete Environmental Regulations Workshop has helped EHS professionals build confidence navigating the latest industry requirements under EPA’s major programs—the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, EPCRA, TSCA, FIFRA, RCRA, and more. Collaborate with other environmental pros from your area to build a solid understanding of the rules and a plan for keeping your facility in compliance.

Tags: Act, Clean, EPA, Water

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