Making the Connection: Water Quality and Water Quantity

Photo: Left Fork of Huntington Creek, Utah. (Frey)
Author: Merritt Frey

Although fish and others who rely on our rivers don’t see the separation, our legal system has long treated water quality and quantity as unrelated concerns. Water quality is regulated by the federal Clean Water Act, while state laws govern water quantity. For too long, the chasm between quality and quantity has been viewed as unbridgeable.

But the real world is always butting in on our policy and legal world...and this situation is no exception. As states wrestle with creating restoration plans for impaired rivers, the issue of sufficient flows is impossible to ignore. And as battles for increasingly slim "new" water supplies heat up, the question of the quality of those water supplies loom large.

For the last year, River Network has been conducting research and working with our Partners to explore the intersection of water quality and water quantity policy, and specifically to identify strategies for better using the tools in the Clean Water Act to protect and restore river flows.

The focus of this work is to provide Partners with the basic tools they need to bridge the quantity/quality gap in their work in their home watershed. We are not claiming any glory for finding the "silver bullet" to solve the legal disconnect, but instead have summarized the legal thinking (and to a lesser extent scientific thinking) that watershed groups might not have the time and resources to wade through.

To explore what we've created so far, poke around the links below. This is just the beginning of long-term work with our Partners, so stay tuned and get involved. Contact me at mfrey @ if you're interested in applying these ideas at home...we may be able to help!

Tools to date:

  • An Artificial Distinction: Addressing Water Quantity Concerns Under the Clean Water Act: This paper -- supported by the Walton Family Foundation -- provides background on key Clean Water Act tools that could be better applied to protect or restore flows. Real-world examples, pros and cons, and recommendations for action are included. NOTE: this is an intermediate level paper. For an introduction to the Clean Water Act, see our online Clean Water Act course.

  • Artificial Distinction webinar: This intermediate-level webinar explored ways to better use Clean Water Act tools to protect and restore in-stream flows in our rivers. Our discussion includes tying water quality standards to flow needs, applying the states’ 401 water quality certification power more broadly to flow issues, and expanding creative use of the Total Maximum Daily Load program to better identify and remedy habitat and/or flow-related impairments.

  • Artificial Distinction resources web page: This page includes links to many of the resources and writings we based many of the ideas in our paper on. This resource collection will hopefully grow over time, so please share anything you think should be added.

Groundwater + Surface Water

Hello River Partners, excellent topic here. In the Colorado Headwaters we are pushing the link between river flows, and lack thereof, to riparian groundwater conditions and all that entails including what the USACE calls wetland "Water Quality Functions." USEPA has shown great interest, who pressed Denver Water into expanding their riparian studies of these relationships.

My bedrock reference for this is:
Ground Water And Surface Water A Single Resource
USGS Circular 1139 dated 1998, By T.C. Winter, J.W. Harvey, O.L. Franke, and W.M. Alley:
"As the Nation's concerns over water resources and the environment increase, the importance of considering ground water and surface water as a single resource has become increasingly evident. Issues related to water supply, water quality, and degradation of aquatic environments are reported on frequently. The interaction of ground water and surface water has been shown to be a significant concern in many of these issues. For example, contaminated aquifers that discharge to streams can result in long-term contamination of surface water; conversely, streams can be a major source of contamination to aquifers. Surface water commonly is hydraulically connected to ground water, but the interactions are difficult to observe and measure and commonly have been ignored in water-management considerations and policies. Many natural processes and human activities affect the interactions of ground water and surface water. The purpose of this report is to present our current understanding of these processes and activities as well as limitations in our knowledge and ability to characterize them."

re: gw + sw

Great point! This paper didn't even begin to address the disconnect between how we think about (and regulate) ground water, surface water, and their interconnections. This is a whole additional area to think about and an additional place to push the envelope in the policy world. I'm glad to hear that pushing is going on in Colorado, and encourage you all to share developments as things move forward. We'll only be hearing more about the push and pull between these areas in the future!

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