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Pollution Permits and the Clean Water Act

Clean Water Report Card for California: Pollution Permits and the Clean Water Act

March 1, 2000

Water pollution permits are a crucial component of the U.S. Clean Water Act. They determine how much pollution every factory, machine shop, electric utility, sewage treatment plant or other polluter can dump into the nation’s waters. The terms of the permits are tailored to the size of the polluter, the toxicity or threat of the pollution, the technology available to clean it up, and the quality and size of the waterway receiving the discharges.

The EPA has recently proposed replacing the Clean Water Act permit system with regulations on the total amount of pollution permitted for each body of water, not an individual facility’s discharge. This would force local authorities to limit the amount of pollution discharged by each facility. But the EPA plan faces significant Congressional opposition and would take 15 years to implement.

The goals of the Clean Water Act –"to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters" – will not be met without up-to-date permits. When permits remain expired for years at a time, pollution can continue unchecked, water quality may deteriorate, and progress toward the Clean Water Act’s ultimate goal of "zero discharge" of pollutants is brought to a standstill.

In 43 states including California, Clean Water Act permits are issued by state regulators. In California, overall authority rests with the state Water Resources Control Board, but the permits are administered by nine regional water boards. (The exceptions are oil drilling platforms off the Southern California coast, which are permitted by the EPA.) Permits must be renewed at least every five years, at which time pollution reductions or improved treatment technologies are typically required.

Clean Water Act permits are particularly important in California, where pollution impairs a far greater share of the state’s bodies of water than the nation as a whole. While 35 to 40 percent of the nation’s rivers, lakes and estuaries are considered "impaired" – that is, they do not support swimming, fishing or other beneficial uses – more than 60 percent of California rivers and streams and 80 percent of lakes and estuaries are impaired, according to the EPA’s most recent assessment. Much of this poor water quality begins with the failure to meet deadlines to update and reissue Clean Water Act permits. Two prominent facilities illustrate the problem.