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The passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 established the water standard qualities and the total maximum daily load (TMDL) ceiling. The TMDL is intended to maintain the quality standards of water. To do so, TMDL is set to control the amount of pollutants that are allowed to flow into a given water source. The TMDL is calculated by adding the allowed pollutant loads for point sources, nonpoint sources, projected growth, and a margin of safety, resulting in a sum that is the TMDL.
Every state is responsible for its own water quality levels by establishing its own TMDL. However, if the state fails to do so, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is then responsible to prevent pollution to the water. Because TMDL implications were not clearly defined in the federal regulations, its details continue to evolve and the EPA must adapt in many ways.
The TMDL process starts with identifying the water sources that do not meet the water quality standards. When water that does not meet the standard is identified, the cause of the pollutant for that particular area is investigated. Water sources containing more important or potentially dangerous pollutants are prioritized to be addressed earliest, so that the ones with more minor pollution issues, which often occur naturally, are at the bottom of the priority list. In order for certain areas to pass the state water standards, the TMDL staff must work hard to control the amount of the pollutants allowed into the water.
More than 40 percent of the water from the total U.S. watersheds did not meet the federal quality standards, leading the EPA to take actions to improve the TMDL programs. In the 1992 TMDL regulations established by the EPA demanded that the states and authorized groups publicly list waters that were polluted. Those water sources had to meet the standards in order to be removed from the list. There is a two-year listing cycle, and the authorities in charge of a particular water source are required to submit the list of polluted waters on the first of April of every even year. To avoid excluding certain polluted waters, the EPA required that the authorities provide a good reason to not include certain waters or remove waters from the list of polluted waters. The authorities in charge have 30 days to provide the list of polluted waters to the EPA. If some of them are disapproved by the EPA, the EPA has to come up with the list within 30 days and have the approval of the public or the list they disapproved from the authorities will be approved.
After an approval for a TMDL, all the authorities and responsible organizations must regularly update the progress of the process. The evaluation of a TMDL is performed by monitoring the loading of pollutants, keeping track of the controls of the pollutants, assessing water qualities, and then reevaluating the TMDL for water standards.
The priority of cleaning a certain watershed is determined not by the percentage of pollution, but by the priorities set on how the water is being used. When the water directly affects people’s health, the source is ranked higher. Some of these risks include water used for fishing, swimming, and drinking water.
In 1997 the EPA established updated guidelines for the TMDL program to address issues raised as the program itself developed. In the new program, there are some recommendations that were also included to help address these issues. After the authorities establish the list of polluted waters, they normally have to come up with a resolution within eight to 13 years. When the schedules are made for the water sources, there are factors that need to be considered, including the number of segments of the polluted water, the distance of the water that needs cleanup, the number of similarities and differences among these waters, and significance of the threat of the pollutant in the water.
- North Carolina Division of Water Quality, “Modeling and TMDL Unit: The N.C. TMDL Program,” deq.nc.gov;
- State of Maryland Department of Environment, “Total Maximum Daily Loads,” mde.state.md.us;
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Overview of Current Total Maximum Daily Load-TMDL-Program and Regulations,” epa.gov.