EPA’s New Recreational Water Quality Criteria and What it Means for Clean Water

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released its 2012 recreational water quality criteria (RWQC), which updates existing criteria in effect since 1986. Although the numeric criteria values remained relatively unchanged, other alterations, including EPA’s recommended 30-day averaging period, will make the criteria more difficult to meet.

Though there was no evidence that EPA’s 1986 criteria were not protective of public health, the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000 required EPA to update its RWQC for coastal recreational waters. With the 2012 RWQC revision, however, EPA is applying the criteria to all waters in the U.S., including marine, estuarine, Great Lakes, and inland waters that are designated for primary contact recreation. This expansion, combined with the elimination of the existing tiered approach for applying the criteria based on how often a particular waterbody is used for recreation, will mean more impaired waters despite no change in actual water quality.    

The most obvious change is that the new RWQC now includes two sets of criteria, rather than the original one (see Table). Option A represents a level of water quality roughly equivalent to the 1986 criteria; Option B, according to EPA, represents an “incremental improvement in water quality.” EPA encourages states to determine which set of criteria values are most appropriate for their waters. EPA states that both sets would protect the designated use of primary contact recreation. It is anticipated, however, that EPA will encourage states that have not yet adopted standards similar to Option A to adopt the more stringent Option B.  Initial reactions are that this bifurcated approach will cause confusion and complicate implementation. 

Another, more significant change is a required 30-day duration interval for evaluating the criteria. Although the RWQC document is unclear whether this is a static or rolling 30-day period, it will prove problematic for waters where sampling is less frequent, especially inland waters where recreation is less prevalent. EPA recommends that states “consider the number of samples evaluated” when developing their monitoring plans, but does not set a minimum number of samples.  Given the current resource limitations of many states, this could mean that some impairment decisions could be based on a single sample. 

Beyond the criteria recommendations, EPA also provided two key pieces of supplemental information for consideration by states: 1) the Beach Action Value (BAV), a new beach screening level; and 2) availability of a new, rapid test method, qPCR.

EPA suggested that states use a BAV—which corresponds to the 75th percentile of the same distribution used to establish the criteria—as a conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions. EPA stressed, however, that BAVs are not part of the recommended criteria but are tools that a state may choose to use. There are lingering concerns that even though these BAVs are not part of the criteria, their use for beach closure and notification purposes could ultimately result in impairment decisions with real Clean Water Act implications. 

One of the major drivers behind the environmental NGO push to have EPA update the RWQC was the possibility of more rapid results so beach closure decisions could be more timely. The new qPCR test method for detecting and quantifying  enterococci more rapidly than the existing culture methods can play an important role for high-use beaches where possible sources of interference are minimal. But even EPA admits that it has limited experience with the performance of the method and rather than base the RWQC on its results, is only encouraging states to consider using qPCR.  The Agency also stressed that the method is not currently suggested for CWA permitting or effluent-related monitoring, a point that NACWA has stressed given the methods sensitivity to interference and unreliability in evaluating fecal indicators in wastewater effluent. 

Little if any of EPA’s RWQC will affect the clean water community until the states decide to incorporate them into their water quality standards. This next phase will be critical to see what issues arise as states work to make sense of EPA’s recommendations. Although EPA has committed to a schedule for developing some implementation guidance, key information on how to establish permit limits based on the RWQC currently has no timetable for development. EPA never developed implementation guidance for the 1986 criteria, and NACWA will continue to make additional guidance for the states and permittees a priority.


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