How Do Water Boards Regulate Surface Water Pollution?

Public or private facilities that discharge to rivers, lakes or streams must have discharge permits. Water boards regulate discharges and stormwater runoff.



Since 1972, the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) has regulated the discharge of pollutants to navigable waters through issuance of permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). They are waste discharge requirements for discharges to surface waters (rivers, streams and lakes that often serve as drinking water supplies) under the CWA.

The vast majority of NPDES permits are issued by regional water boards. An individual permit is tailored for a specific discharge, while a general permit is developed and issued to cover multiple facilities within a specific category. The process begins when a discharger submits an application to a water board. Application typically require details about the wastes to be discharged, the setting for the discharge, the water bodies to be impacted and the method of treatment or containment.

If a permit is needed and the application is complete, staff prepares a draft and sends out a notice for a 30-day public comment period. The regional water board holds a public hearing after the 30-day public notification. It or the state may adopt the permit as proposed or with modification, or not adopt it at all.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency then has 30 days to object to the draft permit, and the objection must be satisfied before the permit becomes effective.

Regulating Stormwater Runoff

Urban runoff can cause pollution, as well as physical impacts, to water bodies and their surrounding landscape. Regional water boards regulate point source discharges of stormwater using federal CWA authority. The programs cover municipal, industrial and construction aspects of stormwater runoff pollution. Water board staff review reports and plans, inspect facilities and provide enforcement.

An enforcement action is typically proceeded by public notice and hearing which provides for opportunities for the public to participate and make their views heard.

The above excerpts are adapted from the Citizen’s Guide to Working with the California Water Boards.

Andrea Fox is Editor of and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.