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Tribal Compliance Assistance Center

Water Resources

Background Information
Surface Water Protection
Listing of Impaired Waters
Total Maximum Daily Loads
Implementation of Watershed Protection Programs
Reservoir Management
Source Water Protection
Watershed Protection and Management
Pollution Prevention

Background Information

EPA's Water Web site provides access to all EPA's water quality issues including groundwater, drinking water, water science, wastewater management, wetlands, oceans, and watersheds.

Water resources include surface waters (i.e., coastal bays, lakes, rivers, and streams) and groundwater. These water resources may be used for drinking water, industrial processes, agriculture, and irrigation. Water resources also provide opportunities for recreation, such as fishing, boating and swimming. Tribes also use water resources to support and maintain traditional cultural practices and ceremonies.

For each of these uses, tribal governments are one of many governmental entities - tribal, state, and federal - that may be responsible for ensuring that the water is safe and available in sufficient quantities for its intended purpose. Activities related to water resources management include protecting and managing surface waters (including reservoirs) and protecting groundwater. Water resources management programs protect these waters from direct wastewater discharges and problems caused by urban and agricultural runoff. Among the most important ecosystems in terms of watershed protection are wetlands, which filter pollutants, afford protection from floods, and are home to a wide diversity of plants and animals. Also important are estuaries, which serve as both birthplace and nursery for many species of fish and shellfish. Today, the majority of watersheds in the United States have water quality problems, including excess nutrient loading and the presence of pathogens and toxic chemicals; these problems have led to habitat loss, invasive species incursion, fish kills, and can present public health threats.

Tribes have a dual role in the area of water resources management. They may develop separate water quality programs and/or seek to implement federal programs like the CWA. To date, however, most tribes do not exercise federal program authority under the CWA. Where tribes have not received authorization to implement federal programs under the CWA, EPA directly implements programs in Indian country.

Indian tribes have the choice of implementing their own water quality guidelines or adapting those of the EPA Clean Water Act.

In their other role, some tribal governments may be responsible for managing the water resources within their borders as part of their efforts to meet requirements in their NPDES permits for municipal wastewater treatment plants, municipal stormwater runoff, or combined sewer overflow (CSO) controls. While many water resource management activities will overlap these permit requirements, tribal governments may elect to develop water resources management programs whether or not they are required by regulation.

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Surface Water Protection

The EPA's Watershed Web site provides for information on protecting surface waters and watersheds.

Surface water problems are complex and may vary from region to region. Tribes are beginning to protect and restore watersheds using a variety of methods, including: establishing tribal water quality standards; monitoring on-reservation waters, and in some cases up-stream or other off-reservation waters, to assess water quality; identifying water quality impairment; determining necessary pollution reductions; and taking steps to protect and restore water quality through tribal authorities.

The CWA provides the basis of federal programs to protect surface water quality, which tribes are also eligible to seek to implement. Tribes may use a watershed approach, which is a management framework that focuses public and private efforts on addressing high priority problems within hydrologically defined geographic areas and considers both ground and surface water flow.

Water Quality Standards

The EPA's Water Quality Standards Web site provides material on water quality standards. View "Our Water Our Future: Saving Our Tribal Life Forces Together," which documents the Pueblo of Acoma and the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation efforts to develop water quality standards.

Water quality standards are the cornerstone of the nation's surface water protection program and are integral to implementing the water quality framework of the CWA. The water quality standards program is authorized under Section 303(c) of the CWA (33 USC 1313(c)), and implemented through 40 CFR Part 131.

Under the CWA, water quality standards serve two primary purposes. First, they define the water quality goals for a water body. Second, they serve as the regulatory basis for controls beyond technology-based levels of treatment required by Sections 301 and 306 of the CWA (PDF) (96 pp, 227K, About PDF). Generally, water quality standards provide a means to attain the goals of the CWA.

Water quality standards consist of three components:

EPA-approved water quality standards may be adopted for all surface waters of the United States, including lakes, rivers, streams, intermittent streams, natural ponds, estuaries, near-shore coastal waters and wetlands. For tribes, two of the requirements for applying to administer the water quality standards warrant particular emphasis. First, tribes must demonstrate that they have the technical capability to administer the program or provide a plan showing how the tribe will get such capability. Second, tribes must demonstrate that they have jurisdiction over the affected water resources; this demonstration, among other things, involves delineating tribal authority for areas inside of a reservation's boundary.

Information on water quality standards and criteria for waters in Indian country is available at EPA's Web site Tribes: Water Quality Standards and Criteria. This Web site provides information on the development of sound, scientifically defensible standards, criteria, advisories, limitations and standards guidelines under the CWA and SDWA.

Water Quality Monitoring

EPA's Monitoring and Assessing Water Quality Web site provides material on EPA's water quality and monitoring activities.

Ambient monitoring means observing or measuring selected features of an aquatic ecosystem and is essential to surface water protection. It is performed in order to assess the health of an aquatic ecosystem and its ability to support human uses. Ambient monitoring is also used to identify problems or changes early on, provide insight into the causes of problems, and determine whether water quality goals have been achieved. Designing an effective ambient monitoring program involves four elements:

There are several methos to monitor water conditions:

Monitoring can be conducted in several ways - at regular sites on a continuous basis, at selected sites on an as-needed basis to answer specific questions, on a temporary or seasonal basis, or on an emergency basis. Increasingly, monitoring efforts are aimed at determining the condition of entire watersheds. This is because of increased understanding of the importance of watershed-based management, which itself reflects the interconnectedness of all types of waterbodies and a recognition of the impacts of land-based activities on the waters that drain the land, including those beneath the ground.

Tribal governments have key monitoring responsibilities and may implement monitoring programs. Pollution control decisions are based on data collected by tribes, as well as federal and state governments and private entities. EPA provides technical assistance on how to monitor, as well as how to report water quality monitoring findings to the federal government. EPA also provides grants for pollution control activities, which tribes (and states) may use to support monitoring programs.

Monitoring water bodies can be crucial to determining what land based activities are affecting water quality.

Tribes may seek to obtain grants under Section 104 and 106 of the CWA to carry out effective water pollution control programs. Section 106 grants may be used to fund a wide range of water quality activities, including: water quality planning and assessments; development of water quality standards; ambient monitoring; development of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs); issuing permits; groundwater and wetland protection; nonpoint source control activities (including nonpoint source assessment and management plans); and watershed assessments. Section 104 grants may be used to focus on innovative demonstration and special projects. Among the efforts eligible for funding are research, investigations, experiments, training, environmental technology demonstrations, surveys, and studies related to the causes, effects, extent and prevention of pollution.

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Listing of Impaired Waters

The US Watershed Assesment Tracking and Environmental Results Tool, can be used to find impaired waters.

The CWA requires the listing of each currently impaired and threatened water body, and the setting of priorities for their cleanup; the impaired waters list is also called the 303(d) list, named after the section of the CWA that requires it. Generally, any water body that does not meet, or is not expected to meet, its water quality standards after application of technology-based pollution controls is considered an impaired water body. Any water body that is not impaired but which, based on expected changes in loadings or conditions, is considered a threatened water body.

Tribes may be involved in listing of impaired waters in one of two ways:

Tribes may apply to EPA for authority for assigning priorities and developing plans to clean up the listed waterbodies. To date, however, no tribes have authority under the CWA to list impaired waterbodies. Both the initial listing and the updated listing are sent to EPA. These plans are known as TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads). The priorities for establishing TMDLs are based upon the severity of the pollution and the designated uses of the particular waters. EPA recommends that the criteria for making priority decisions include the level of risk to human health and the environment; the degree of public interest and support; the aquatic habitat's vulnerability to pollution; and the importance of recreational, aesthetic, or economic uses.

Tribes can influence listing decisions of neighboring states by providing information about the health of a water body to the neighboring states and/or directly to EPA. The list of impaired waterbodies may include waters for which water quality problems are reported by governmental agencies, the general public, or academic institutions.

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Total Maximum Daily Loads

EPA's Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) Web site provides useful guidance information.

A TMDL specifies the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still meet water quality standards, and allocates pollutant loadings among point and nonpoint pollutant sources. Tribes can become involved in establishing TMDLs in three ways. First, tribes can develop EPA-approved water quality standards and develop their own TMDLs affecting the listed waterbodies on the reservation. Second, tribes may provide information and become involved in the TMDL processes and decisions with states affecting shared water bodies. Third, tribes may assist EPA in developing TMDLs for Indian country. The second and third ways are effective options for tribes to become familiar with the TMDL process and help ensure their interests are represented. TMDLs are submitted to EPA for review and approval. If EPA disapproves a TMDL, the Agency must establish TMDL within 30 days of the disapproval. The TMDL program is found in section 303(d) of the CWA and 40 CFR Part 131.

A TMDL is the sum of the allocated pollutant loads and is set at a level necessary to implement the applicable water quality standards; a TMDL includes:

A TMDL must contain a margin of safety and a consideration of seasonal variations. In addition, EPA encourages authorized tribes and states to identify a monitoring plan and schedule for considering revisions to TMDLs that will be implemented over time.

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Implementation of Watershed (Surface Water) Protection Programs

EPA's Watershed Web site provides material on EPA's watershed protection issues.

The CWA requires that any point source discharger into surface waters obtain an NPDES permit, including any facility discharging into waters in Indian country. As discussed in Chapter 3.9, publicly owned treatment plants are required to provide at least secondary treatment for their discharged wastewater. When this level of treatment does not protect receiving waters, additional treatment must be applied in order to meet water quality standards.

Wastewater discharges from commercial/industrial sources may contain pollutants at levels that could effect the quality of receiving waters. The NPDES permit program establishes specific requirements for discharges from these sources. Depending upon the type of industrial or commercial facility operated, more than one NPDES program may apply. For example, stormwater run off from an industrial facility or from a construction site may require an NPDES permit under the stormwater program. An industrial facility may also discharge wastewater to a sewer system and be covered by the NPDES pretreatment program. Alternatively, an industrial facility may discharge wastewater directly to a surface water and need an NPDES permit issued by EPA.

Tribes may seek authorization from EPA to administer NPDES programs. To date, no tribes have been authorized. However, tribes can have a role in the permitting process through the public participation provisions of the NPDES regulations (40 CFR Part 122). These participation provisions enable tribes to comment during the public hearings or notice and commit opportunities and appeal permit decisions. Many point source discharges remain undetected and unpermitted. Tribes can visually survey the rivers and streams of their watersheds to identify sources of pollution that are affecting their water resources. These unpermitted discharges can be brought to EPA's and the permitting authorities attention in order to stop the discharge, or to force the polluting facility to obtain a discharge permit and undergo a public comment period.

Best Management Practices

For more information visit EPA's National Stormwater BMPs.

Best Management Practices (BMPs) may be structural (e.g., stormwater detention/retention ponds) or nonstructural (e.g., street sweeping) and may include managing existing sources or conduits of contamination, such as roads, bridges, and stormwater systems. These activities help tribal governments protect their water supplies, comply with stormwater permits, prevent soil erosion into water, and prevent problems associated with agricultural runoff.

Structural BMPs are designed to prevent, inhibit, or slow the rate at which stormwater runoff or spilled contaminants reach a body of water. BMPs, including extended retention ponds, wet ponds, and constructed wetlands, prevent contaminants from reaching surface waters by capturing runoff and allowing it to filter through the soil or evaporate, rather than directly flowing to a water body. Additional filtering structures include sand filters, oil and grit separators, and infiltration basins. Containment structures may require periodic maintenance to remove accumulated sediment, while filtering structures may require maintenance to remove debris and ensure efficient operation. Each of these structures helps remove contaminants (sediments, oils and greases, pesticides, fertilizers, debris) from rainwater and helps to protect the surface water for its intended use. Some structural BMPs that rely on stormwater infiltration may be subject to federal Underground Injection Control (UIC) regulations.

Nonstructural BMPs include various operational activities such as sweeping streets and maintaining or preserving grassed swales, vegetative buffer areas, and wetlands. Street sweeping protects surface waters by removing such solids as sand, debris, and litter that would otherwise be transported to the surface water during a rain event. Street sweeping also prevents contaminants that may be absorbed by sand and debris from reaching surface water.

Vegetative buffer areas are physically active controls designed and maintained to filter pollutants and thereby prevent them from reaching surface waters; vegetative buffer areas are essential to maintaining surface water quality. These areas complement passive control, such as land use or zoning laws, which prevent activities (e.g., paving, pesticide use) that could increase surface water contamination.

Wetlands are also used to help break down contaminants before they reach open bodies of water. Tribal governments may actively manage marsh areas by adding new plants and removing accumulated sediment.

Tribes may seek financial assistance from EPA and other federal agencies to assist them in protecting their water resources. EPA provides grants to tribes for the construction of wastewater and drinking water treatment facilities to develop a surface water protection program targeted at controlling pollution from nonpoint sources.

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Reservoir Management

Protecting reservoirs is a key component of a tribal government's surface water protection program. Keeping reservoirs clean and free from contamination helps ensure a safe supply of drinking water. In addition, preventing debris, sedimentation, litter, chemicals, or other pollutants from entering a reservoir reduces the amount of treatment necessary for the water to meet drinking water standards. While managing reservoirs includes BMPs, it also includes establishing security around the reservoir and creating buffer zones.

Reservoir security involves controls to prevent direct litter, dumping, or inappropriate use. Security measures may include fencing at the water line or fencing of a larger surrounding area. Providing limited access roads or trails in the vicinity of the reservoir is another way to protect reservoirs. While not preventing contamination, limiting access roads and trails can prevent large-scale dumping, limiting pollution to litter or human waste. Such efforts can also enhance the protection of cultural resources and hunting, fishing, and gathering sites.

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Source Water (Groundwater) Protection

EPA's Source Water Protection Web site contains a variety of information on groundwater and sourcewater protection to prevent drinking water contamination.

Tribal governments that provide or maintain drinking water supplies within their boundaries are encouraged to develop Source Water Assessment and Protection Programs. Source Water Assessment and Protection Programs help enable tribes to assess possible threats to their public drinking water supply sources and to develop protection measures to protect these sources against those threats.

The program begins with the assessment phase:

Source water protection elements are developed and implemented based on the results of the assessment. Typical Source Water protection elements may include:

Tribal governments may develop an array of regulations to enhance groundwater protection. Tribes may also want to partner with state, local, and regional planning bodies or water commissions to ensure their views are incorporated into regional watershed decisionmaking.

Elements of a Source Water Protection Plan

Sole Source Aquifer Designation

Tribes may seek sole source aquifer designations to protect drinking water supplies in areas with few or no alternative sources and where available alternatives sources would be extremely expensive. The designation protects an area's groundwater resource by requiring EPA review of any proposed projects within the designated area that receive federal financial assistance. The program typically reviews projects such as highway construction, airports and wastewater treatment facilities, but all proposed projects receiving federal funds are subject to review to ensure they do not endanger the water source.

The program also provides for EPA review of federal financially assisted projects planned for the area to determine the projects' potential for contaminating the aquifer. Based on this review, no commitment of federal financial assistance may be made for projects "which the EPA Administrator determines may contaminate such aquifer," although federal funds may be used to modify projects to ensure that they will not contaminate the aquifer. Section 1424(e) of the SDWA addresses sole source aquifer designations.

Zoning Ordinances

Zoning and subdivision ordinances are used to direct or limit development in a wellhead protection area to can limit the number of potential sources of contamination. Zoning ordinances may restrict or regulate land uses within the protected area while subdivision ordinances are designed to limit the division of land for sale or development.

Site Plan Reviews

Site plan reviews require developers to submit plans for approval for development occurring within a given area. Site plan reviews help minimize the impact on a protected area by requiring compliance with protection ordinances and giving the tribal government an opportunity to review and approve development activities prior to implementation.

Design and Operating Standards

Tribal governments can establish design standards for new construction and operating standards for ongoing land use activities. Design standards can ensure that new buildings or structures placed within a wellhead protection area do not pose a threat to the water supply. For example, a tribe could develop design standards for gas stations in order to reduce runoff that could contaminate the water supply. Operating standards minimize threats from ongoing activities, such as application of fertilizers and pesticides or storage and use of hazardous materials. These standards may also include prohibition of potential pollutant sources within protected areas.

Property or Easement Purchases

Tribal governments can purchase property or property easements on land within the protected areas. These purchases can prevent future development and give the tribal government land on which to maintain vegetative buffers to help prevent contaminants from reaching the protected area.

Public Education

Tribal governments may initiate efforts to educate the public on potential threats to groundwater, on how the public's actions impact groundwater, and the need to prevent groundwater contamination. Some examples of efforts that tribes may pursue include sponsoring advertisements and radio programs, distributing fliers, posting information on community bulletin boards, and providing information at tribal meetings.

Groundwater Monitoring

As part of wellhead protection programs, tribal governments may monitor the groundwater within and leading to a drinking water aquifer. In addition, a tribe with appropriate regulatory authority could require owners of businesses that have the potential to contaminate groundwater to monitor groundwater as it leaves their property. EPA regulations may require monitoring in particular circumstances (e.g., underground storage tanks) and tribal governments may request property owners who participate in particular activities (e.g., agricultural fertilizer/pesticide application) to periodically monitor groundwater to determine whether it is becoming contaminated. Proper sampling and well drilling techniques are important to prevent aquifer contamination.

Household Hazardous Waste Collection

As part of their wellhead protection programs, tribal governments may establish household hazardous waste (HHW) collection programs. HHW collection programs provide an opportunity for the safe disposal of oils, fertilizers, gasoline, or other household chemicals that residents might otherwise dispose of on the ground or in a landfill designed to accept only non-hazardous solid waste. By collecting and safely disposing of these materials, tribal governments prevent them from potentially reaching underground drinking water supplies.

Integrated Pest Management

Integrated pest management (IPM) is another way to protect reservoirs. IPM is an approach to pest management that blends all available management techniques - nonchemical and chemical - into one strategy: monitor pest problems, use nonchemical pest control, and resort to pesticides only when pest damage exceeds an economic or aesthetic threshold. Using IPM will enable the tribal government to determine whether pesticide application is appropriate in and around groundwater and, if appropriate, which type of pesticide to apply.

Underground Injection Control

EPA's Underground Injection Control Web site provides material on EPA's UIC program.

The UIC program works with tribes and local governments to oversee the underground injection of waste to prevent the contamination of ground water drinking water resources. For regulatory purposes, EPA groups wastes into five classes. Classes V wells represent the category most commonly found in Indian country. They include shallow disposal systems such as dry wells, septic systems, leach fields, and similar types of drainage wells that are used to dispose of fluids into or above underground source of drinking water. The UIC regulations were revised in 1999 and additional provisions for two Class V well types were implemented. The revisions, referred to as the Class V Rule, ban the use of large capacity cesspools and motor vehicle waste disposal wells. To protect groundwater tribal governments should work with their local EPA UIC program representatives to ensure these well types are properly closed.

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EPA's Wetlands Web site provides material on EPA's wetlands program.

Tribal governments, in partnership with EPA and other federal agencies, may be responsible for protecting, restoring, and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters on tribal lands as part of the waters of the United States.

Wetlands vary widely because of regional and local differences in soils, topography, climate, hydrology, water chemistry, vegetation, and other factors, including human disturbance. Under the CWA, the term wetlands means "those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs and similar areas."

Wetlands in Indian country are both pristine and degraded and require an adaptive strategy that includes protection, restoration, and mitigation. Tribal wetlands programs typically start with determining the location, extent, and condition of a tribe's wetlands. Tribes with wetlands that are in a relatively pristine state focus on protecting the resource from potential impacts. Tribes with wetlands that have been adversely impacted focus on stopping existing degradation, restoring previously degraded wetlands, and mitigating potential future impacts on wetlands. Whether planning to address pristine or degraded wetlands, tribal wetlands programs can protect economic, ecological, aesthetic, recreational, and medicinal values.

Although many tribes have wetland programs, most have yet to develop specific wetland regulations or amend their environmental laws and regulations to include wetland and other water quality issues.

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Watershed Protection and Management

EPA's Watershed Academy Web Online Training Web site provides watershed management training courses

A watershed protection approach is a strategy to effectively protect and restore aquatic ecosystems and protecting human health. This strategy recognizes watersheds as physically defined units that are functionally distinct; that requires problem solving at the watershed level, rather than at the individual water body or discharger level.

Major features of a watershed protection approach are:

To address water resource problems more effectively, tribes both should tailor their program tp the watershed of concern and be as comprehensive as possible. Many tribal watershed approaches address natural resource issues that cross geographic, jurisdictional, and political boundaries. These approaches recognize the need for water supply, water quality, flood control, navigation, hydropower generation, fisheries, biodiversity, habitat preservation, and recreation. In addition, the issues of cultural values and sacred sites are important to tribal watershed management.

Tribes can support and facilitate many of the management activities likely to be taken by watershed programs outside of Indian country. Tribes may also want to partner with regional planning bodies or water commissions to ensure their views are incorporated into regional/watershed decision-making. The following steps provide a comprehensive approach to watershed protection:

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Pollution Prevention and Water Resources Management

The best way to protect water quality is to avoid polluting water in the first place. When pollution reaches surface or underground waterways, it can have many adverse effects, including impacts on drinking water sources. Water resource management approaches vary from community to community depending on various factors such as the source of water, size and population of the community, needs of the population, and the water supply system integrity. For example, water conservation may be a very high priority for some tribes, while other tribes may enjoy an abundance of source water. But in all cases, there is a need to protect water resources and manage them wisely.

As with other tribal government activities, by incorporating pollution prevention criteria into the decisionmaking processes, tribal decision makers and water resource managers can:

Programs that focus on municipal and industrial pollution prevention help prevent or reduce water pollution. Development of tribal source-water management programs can help achieve CWA and SDWA goals. Tribal education and outreach attempts can extend not only to members, but to non-members as well. Extension to non-members provides an opportunity to familiarize non-members around a reservation with the tribe's role in managing and protecting resources, and the tribal interest in working with the larger community to conserve natural resources.

Typical Wastes Generated Or Losses Contributing To Pollution

Overall (affecting surface and groundwater)

Additional for Surface Water

Top Pollution Prevention Opportunities - Outreach & Promotion

Overall (surface and groundwater)

Additional for Surface Water

Top Pollution Prevention Opportunities - Internal Tribal Government Operations

Overall (surface and groundwater)

Additional for Surface Water

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For related information visit EPA’s National Indian Country Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Priority site and EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program in Indian country site.

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