Setting Goals for Clean Water

Water Quality Standards
Water quality standards provide the foundation of all water quality-based programs contained in the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). States are required to identify the desired water quality for their streams, rivers and lakes so that these waters meet the twin goals that they are “fishable and swimmable.” These water quality goals consist of designated uses, water quality criteria, and anti-degradation policies, and collectively are known as “water quality standards.” Often, people referring to “water quality standards” are only referring to “criteria.” Once established by the state, water quality standards are subject to approval by US EPA.
The three basic elements of water quality standards are:
Designated uses
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has established use designations for all of the streams, lakes and rivers in the state.  Expressed as use “classes,” they are: domestic consumption, aquatic life and recreation, industrial consumption, agriculture and wildlife, aesthetic enjoyment and navigation, other uses and protection of border waters, and limited resource value waters.

By far the most common use designation for Minnesota waters is “aquatic life and recreation” (Class 2).  These waters have water quality criteria that fully support aquatic life—generally fish communities (thus fulfilling the “fishable” goal of the CWA), and primary contact recreation (fulfilling the “swimmable” goal).

EPA website for designated uses

Water quality criteria
In 2008, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency revised the state’s water quality standards for the first time in seven years, (even though federal law requires them to do so every three years). One key result of this revision was the adoption of numeric criteria for phosphorus for lakes.

Read MCEA’s comments on the 2008 water quality standard revisions:

MPCA is again undergoing the process to revise the state’s water quality standards. The current update includes proposed phosphorus and algae standards for streams and rivers, protections for which MCEA has long advocated. Removed from the docket are standards for cadmium, nonylphenol, and copper.

More Information:
MPCA rulemaking webpage
MCEA comments on river nutrient criteria
Lake Pepin Site Specific Standard for Phosphorus
MCEA comments on Lake Pepin Site Specific Standard for Phosphorus

EPA website for water quality criteria

Variance Rulemaking
When water quality standards cannot be met immediately but are expected to be met in the future, EPA allows states to grant a temporary variance. Current state rules do not match the criteria for a variance in federal law, so MPCA has proposed to harmonize the two by revising the state rules. MCEA's comments noted that the protections in federal law must be incorporated into state rule and recommended that the variances be reviewed more regularly. MCEA also provided suggested language for the revised rules. The changes would ensure that discharges must protect water quality except in very specific circumstances. MCEA submitted additional comments in 2013 after reviewing a draft of MPCA's proposed changes that would remove the agency's discretion and allow variances to be administratively continued indefinitely.

Sulfate – Wild rice

Minnesota’s longstanding standard for sulfate, adopted to protect wild rice stands, became a heated topic at the 2011 Minnesota Legislative Session because meeting the standard would require additional treatment at mining facilities that discharge process wastewater high in sulfates.  The legislature attempted to impose a relaxed standard, but ultimately did not do so, largely because US EPA pointed out that such a procedure was contrary to federal law.  Instead, the legislature approved funding for a scientific study to reevaluate the proper level for sulfate to protect wild rice.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has begun the study, developed a protocol, and convened a panel of experts to provide technical advice. MCEA serves on a stakeholder advisory group for the scientific protocol.

Learn more about the wild rice standard revisions;
Read the protocol
Read MCEA's technical expert comments

MCEA is concerned that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has not incorporated limits necessary to meet the existing sulfate standard into mining facility permits as required by the Clean Water Act.

Learn more: Mining; MCEA Keetac comments

MCEA filed comments on the draft of the 2012 impaired waters list requesting that MPCA consider existing monitoring data for sulfate in waters designated for wild rice growth. Despite data showing high sulfate levels in some areas of the state, MPCA has never listed a water as impaired for sulfate.

While Minnesota is plagued with many polluted waters, we are also lucky to have very high quality lakes, rivers and streams. Under the Clean Water Act, the state is required to adopt and implement antidegradation policies to prevent these clean waters from being degraded.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency adopted antidegradation (called “nondegradation”) rules in the 1980s.  The rules apply differently for Outstanding Resource Value Waters and all other water bodies, but MCEA believes that the rules are inadequate to protect high quality waters. In April 2007, MCEA petitioned the MPCA to begin rulemaking to revise its anti-degradation rules, and supplied recommended rule revisions. Two months later, the MPCA responded that it would review and revise (as necessary) its antidegradation rules, and convened several meetings of a stakeholder group which met until mid-2009. After a two-year hiatus, the MPCA posted draft revised antidegradation rules on its website, but these have not yet been opened for a formal public comment period.   

Water Quality Trading

Water quality trading is an exchange of pollutant reduction credits, generally between an NPDES-permitted point source and either another point source or a nonpoint source (such as an agricultural facility). A facility with a higher cost to control a given pollutant can buy pollution reduction credits from a facility with a lower control cost.  Properly done, water quality trading can reduce the cost of permit compliance, meet water quality goals, and sometimes provide added benefits like flood reduction or habitat improvement.

In 1997, MCEA negotiated the nation’s first trading permit between a point source (Rahr Malting) and nonpoint sources.  This permit provides a model for beneficial water quality trading, providing these essential elements:
  • Accountability—the trading parameters were built into the permit as enforceable conditions;
  • Equivalence—the permit contained careful calculations of the pollutants traded, the location of sources reduced in the watershed to determine impact on the downstream impaired water, and a strong trade ratio of 2.1 pounds of nonpoint reductions upstream to 1 pound of credit to the Rahr Malting discharge; and
  • Additionally—the permit listed the specific agricultural BMPs eligible to generate credits, each of which were structural (long-lasting, visible, verifiable), and each of which were practices not already required of the agricultural source by state or federal law.

Click here to see examples
of Rahr Malting nonpoint restoration project.

MCEA followed up the Rahr trading permit in 2000 by negotiating another point-nonpoint source permit for the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar plant and a 2005 general trading permit covering the 40 largest phosphorus dischargers in the Minnesota River basin. Learn more at the MPCA website for the general phosphorus permit.

Unfortunately, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has since departed from the protective trading policies embodied in the three permits discussed above.  In the Annandale-Maple Lake case, MPCA issued a permit for a new discharge of phosphorus to a phosphorus-impaired water (Lake Pepin) with no phosphorus trading agreement.  MPCA later argued that a separate permit issued to the City of Litchfield would reduce phosphorus by more than the new Annandale plant, thus providing an “offset.”  

MPCA subsequently issued trading permits that allow the point source to increase phosphorus pollution to phosphorus-impaired waters in exchange for reduction in another source’s permitted pollution capacity. As a result, the actual pollution to the impaired water can increase.

MCEA challenged this practice in its petition to correct or withdraw the state’s permit program. MCEA calculated that, in the Lake Pepin watershed, the aggregate MPCA-permitted phosphorus pollution allowance is nearly three times the amount of phosphorus actually being discharged to this phosphorus impaired waterbody.

Learn more about MCEA's petition.

In July 2011, MPCA posted its new water quality trading rules. These rules perpetuate this “paper” trading scheme. The draft rules have not yet been placed on formal public comment.

Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
26 East Exchange Street, Suite 206
St. Paul, MN 55101 | (651) 223 - 5969

Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
26 East Exchange Street, Suite 206
St. Paul, MN 55101 | (651) 223 - 5969

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