Getting started: the Clean Water Act through a biological lens

River Network has long-focused on the Clean Water Act as a primary tool for citizens interested in protecting and restoring their watershed. Our new strategic plan continues this focus, but with an increased emphasis on using the Act to protect and restore riparian and instream habitat and biological integrity. In a recent issue of our newsletter, we presented a group of ideas for making the Act work better to protect habitat, flow and other biological aspects of our rivers. (Free download for Partners.)

To get you started on some of the ideas in that issue of River Voices, here you'll find six ways to get started using the Clean Water Act to protect and restore your rivers biological integrity:

1.) Understand the fundamentals

Water quality standards are the fundamental building blocks of Clean Water Act tools. They are made up of designated uses, water quality criteria and the antidegradation policy. You can get started by learning how your state water quality agency has designated different “aquatic life” uses in the water quality standards and what water quality criteria have been established to protect those uses.

  • Track down your state water quality standards online through U.S. EPA's online standards library.
  • Review the designated uses and any water quality criteria that might be important for aquatic life such as dissolved oxygen, temperature, total suspended solids, biological diversity (usually a narrative criterion), or habitat (usually a narrative criterion).
  • Call your state water quality agency and ask them about what you have found and how they would explain the aquatic life uses and protective criteria.
  • If you see that improvements could be made, you can petition your state water quality agency to make those improvements or you can submit them as part of the state’s triennial review (a review of water quality standards that is supposed to happen every three years).

Learn more via our Clean Water Act online course's lesson about water quality standards.

2.) Protect the high quality resources

Determine whether your state water quality agency protects the best of the best, such as reference reaches.

The antidegradation policy of the Clean Water Act was established to protect the quality of the water and guard against future degradation. This policy has three principles: (1) Protect existing uses, (2) Maintain high quality waters and (3) Protect outstanding waters. The third principle (or tier as it is referred to) offers the greatest protection by requiring strict protection of waters with ecological or recreational significance.

  • To take advantage of antidegradation’s protection of outstanding waters, first track down your water quality standards and find your state's antidegradation policy and procedures in U.S. EPA's online standards library.
  • Determine whether your state has a procedure for designating Outstanding National Resources Waters (ONRWs).
  • If so, call your state water quality agency to discuss that procedure and how you would begin the process of nominating waters that are important reference streams, against which other waters can be measured.
  • If not, call your state water quality agency to propose that a procedure be established; the Clean Water Act requires it.
  • You will also want to examine how the state protects the ONRWs once they are designated. Efforts to strengthen protections can be pursued simultaneously while the nomination process is ongoing.

Learn more via our Clean Water Act online course's section on antidegradation

3.) Improve waters that are threatened or impaired

Ascertain how your state water quality agency addresses aquatic habitat problems such as habitat loss or insufficient stream flow.

  • Investigate your state's list of impaired waters. Does your state list waters as impaired if the source of the problem is flow or habitat alteration? If so, how many waters are listed? Should YOUR favorite river be listed?
  • If your state does list flow and habitat problems on the impaired waters list, they may place them in what is called category 4C of the Integrated Report. Call your state agency to find out if your state uses this category. If they do, what policies or funding programs are in place to help restore those rivers?
  • If a river you love is on either of these lists, consider requesting funding through programs such as the 319 nonpoint source program for restoration of the river.

Learn more via our Clean Water Act online course's lesson about identifying impaired waters and establishing restoration plans called Total Maximum Daily Loads.

4.) Guard against destructive wetland and stream alteration

Track proposed permits to alter wetlands and streams and use available regulatory tools to prevent impacts to aquatic life and habitat.

  • Many wetland and stream alteration permits are issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. Find your local Army Corps office and sign up to receive public notices about draft permits in your area. Review those permits and comment on ones that concern you.
  • Some states also have their own wetland permitting programs and all also have the ability to deny or condition Army Corps' permits through the 401 water quality certification process. Learn more about your state's programs and how you can best get involved.

Learn more via our Clean Water Act online course's lesson on wetland dredge and fill permits and the lesson on state oversight of federal permits.

5.) Stop the pollution

Examine and highlight the impacts of discharges on aquatic life and habitat by reviewing discharge permits. Insist on practices and technologies that prevent any harm to uses.

  • Identify the NPDES discharge permits in your watershed. You can usually find this information from your state water quality agency. They may even post it on the website. You might find that discharges are permitted for municipal or industrial wastewater, stormwater, mining activities or concentrated animal feedlots.
  • Decide whether you need to focus on protection strategies or restoration strategies.
  • If you are focused on protection, you should focus in the upper reaches of the watershed. Identify the pollutants and pollution from each discharge that could harm aquatic life or habitat (e.g., bacteria, temperature, biochemical oxygen demand, metals, particular chemicals, unnatural streamflows).
  • If you are focused on restoration, review the most recent threatened and impaired waters list (303(d) list) for your state. You can find the one that was last submitted to EPA (, yet, the state may be working on another, if it hasn’t already been completed. Look to the website for your state water quality agency.
    • Use the 303(d) list to determine which parts of your watershed have been listed for pollutants or pollution that will jeopardize the health of aquatic life (see above list).
    • You will likely need to focus your attention on particular causes of the most common or most troublesome of the pollutants and pollution.
  • Whether protection or restoration driven, you must now focus your attention on the most threatening activities to your watershed and make sure that the NPDES permits that are supposed to control pollutants actually have strong effluent limits for the pollutants and pollution that are the greatest threat to healthy aquatic life conditions.
  • Once strong effluent limits are in place, insist on adequate compliance monitoring, as well as changes to permits when the limits are not sufficient to protect aquatic life and healthy instream and riparian conditions.

Learn more via our Clean Water Act online course's lesson on pollution discharge permits generally and the lesson on stormwater pollution permits.

6.) Advocate for better and more monitoring

Raise questions about your state’s biomonitoring program to your state water quality agency: how often and where do they monitor? Where are the data kept and how are they used?

  • Many of use will first need to learn more about what biomonitoring IS. Learn more from U.S. EPA's bioassessment webpage.
  • There's no one stop shop for finding links to state bioassessment programs. However, call your state agency's water quality monitoring program staff person and ask them to describe their bioassesment program. Do they monitor macroinvertebrates? Fish communities? In-stream habitat? Riparian habitat? What is done with that data?
  • Consider getting involved with or starting a volunteer monitoring program which monitors habitat and aquatic life issues. Visit EPA's volunteer monitoring site, which includes a catalog of existing volunteer programs you can connect with.

You don’t have to tackle all these ideas… just pick one that matches your watershed’s needs as well as the available tools.