How the EPA Regulates 3 Key Water Types: An Overview for Lab Managers

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates several different water types specified by the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Information about these regulations can be found in the agency's Code of Federal Regulations Title 40 (40 CFR) and library of publications. However, parsing through all these hefty resources may be daunting.

40 CFR alone contains eight chapters and 1,899 parts focused on protecting the environment and human health. A few standards vary by state. In addition, the federal government recently made changes to some of the rules. As a water lab professional, it's crucial for you to understand these regulations.

Your lab will need to stay in the know regarding operational standards like specific hold times prior to testing, chains of custody for samples, and approved test methods as well as requirements for state and federal reporting. Failure to do so could affect compliance and put your lab's accreditation at risk. Here's what you need to know about how the EPA currently regulates drinking water, wastewater, and recreational water.

Drinking Water: Understand the Categories and Upcoming Deadlines

Passed by Congress in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act was established to protect the nation's supply of drinking water. It was later amended to cover drinking water sources such as rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and water wells serving more than 25 people. EPA regulations relating to this legislation fall under Part 141 of 40 CFR.

In its resource Understanding the Safe Drinking Water Act, the agency explains that regulation standards vary based on the size and type of water system. Community water systems are public facilities that serve the same people year-round, while noncommunity water systems don't. Within the noncommunity category, there are:

  • Nontransient systems that serve the same people for more than six months annually, such as schools with their own water supply.
  • Transient systems that serve the public — but not the same individuals — for more than six months, such as rest areas and campgrounds.

The National Primary Drinking Water Regulations are science-based standards that public water systems must follow. They set enforceable maximum levels for drinking water contaminants, required methods for treating water to remove contaminants, and proper testing protocols for contaminants. Per the EPA, labs treating drinking water must perform frequent testing on their supplies and report these results to state regulatory bodies.

Under 2018's America's Water Infrastructure Act, drinking water systems serving more than 50,000 people must begin submitting self-certifications to the EPA this year. This process, which requires facilities to present risk and resilience assessments and prepare emergency response plans, helps improve drinking water quality and ensure safe supplies.

Wastewater: Review the EPA's Definitions and Exclusions

The Clean Water Act of 1972 regulates quality standards for surface waters and the discharge of pollutants into water bodies. Part 136 of 40 CFR discusses the guidelines establishing testing procedures for analyzing pollutants. Water types covered include wastewater, sewage sludge, and ambient water. The EPA defines ambient water as "open waters such as rivers, lakes, and streams, as opposed to closed water supply systems that distribute treated water or wastewater."

In early 2020, the EPA and the Department of Defense announced new water definitions under the Clean Water Act. In the revised ruling, called the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, several water types are excluded from federal regulation, including:

  • Groundwater recharge.
  • Water reuse.
  • Wastewater recycling structures that were constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters.
  • Waste treatment systems.

The final rule is now with the Federal Register for publication — but other rule changes are coming. The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program, created by the Clean Water Act, regulates point sources that discharge pollutants through technology-based limits and water quality-based limits. Water labs assessing compliance with these permits must use regularly updated EPA-approved test methods. The EPA is now preparing a final methods update rule for publication.

Separately, the EPA released its first version of a new guide, the National Water Reuse Action Plan: Collaborative Implementation, in early 2020. The plan identifies 37 actions around water reuse, with involvement at the federal, state, local, and private sector levels. According to the EPA, those involved are compiling existing fit-for-purpose specifications for water sources with potential reuse and end-use applications. Appropriate monitoring using applicable methods should verify whether these specifications meet EPA standards.

Recreational Water: Learn Which Water Bodies Are Monitored for Pathogens

Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA develops and recommends criteria for recreational water. State and tribal governments can reference these water quality standards when setting their own. Depending on your location, recreational bodies of water may refer to lakes, rivers, and beaches.

An amendment to the law passed in 2000 called the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act. Also referred to as the BEACH Act, it directs the EPA to study pathogens associated with water-contact activities and make water quality criteria recommendations. The BEACH Act also requires coastal states to monitor their recreational water for pathogens and pathogen indicators.

In 2012, the EPA issued ambient water quality criteria recommendations for recreational waters. These include testing methods for harmful pathogens designed to safeguard the public as they enjoy water activities.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and federal rules and regulations are subject to change. Additionally, some documents take longer to revise than others. Making an effort to stay on top of these regulations and the shifts to come will help position your lab for compliance.


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Alyssa Danigelis

Alyssa Danigelis is a professional freelance journalist who covers business, sustainability, energy, science, and technology. She received a bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Having grown up in Burlington, Vermont, she spent formative time in Boston and pounded the pavement for years in New York City before moving to sunny Colorado, where she currently resides.