State Water Resources Control Board to develop a new regulatory tool for monitoring water quality

The State Water Resources Control Board will take the first step towards developing a regulatory program to establish biological objectives that would apply to the state’s perennial, wadeable streams by holding CEQA scoping meetings in September.  The goal is to develop a statewide policy for biological objectives that will have the same regulatory authority as existing water quality objectives for chemical, physical, and toxicological characteristics.  Eventually, the State Water Board plans to develop biological objectives for all types of waterbodies, including perennial and non-pernnial streams, large rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

Both the federal Clean Water Act and the state Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act recognize the aquatic life health of waterways as essential by including references to the biological characteristics in their definitions of water quality.  However, California’s numerous water quality objectives are almost all based on thresholds for chemical, physical, or toxicological substances; they are not relevant indicators for aquatic life as they do not directly measure the biological community.

A recent statewide survey determined that half of the state’s perennial stream miles are considered altered or severely altered, and more than half have degraded physical habitat.  With California’s population projected to increase, there is concern for many of the streams that are still in good biological condition as they lie directly in the path of significant planned urban development  Strong policies will need to be in place to protect these streams from future degradation.

Current water regulations do not adequately address biological conditions as a water body cannot be listed as impaired using biological data alone.  Instead, the impairment of a waterway must be associated with a chemical constituent and a TMDL developed, whether or not the it is the cause of the biological impairment.  Addressing the chemical constituent may or may not improve the situation.

Biological objectives are criteria that define desired biological conditions and are adopted into a state’s water quality standards; they may be written as either narrative statements, numerical standards, or sometimes as both. In order to develop the necessary criteria, a method known as bioassessment uses standardized protocols to measure resident aquatic organisms, such as algae, insects, and worms.  Since these organisms live in the waterbody being measured, they integrate the effects of different stressors over time, thus providing a cumulative record and a direct measure of biological conditions.

Bioassessments have been conducted in California by various agencies and organizations since the early 1990s, but data comparisons in the past were difficult as the methods used were often inconsistent between projects and reference conditions were determined by specific project.  In 2005, the State Water Board’s Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP) began supporting bioassessments by developing and implementing a monitoring infrastructure that includes indicators, methods, quality assurance/quality control, and data management tools.  SWAMP also encourages data comparability and collaboration with other organizations and agencies involved with biological monitoring.

In order to evaluate a biological objective, there must be a desired ecological condition, called a reference condition, against which the test sites can be compared. Since many waterbodies in the state have already been severely altered, reference sites are often represented by “minimally disturbed” conditions.  Test sites are then compared to reference sites that have similar geological and other characteristics. In stream systems where conditions are limited by uncontrollable factors, such as impacts from natural sources or other impacts from human actions that cannot reasonably be expected to change, the focus will be on expectations for the “best attainable” conditions.

CEQA Scoping Meetings will be held in Sacramento, Oakland, Redding and Riverside during September.  The purpose of the meetings is to seek comments from the public on the scope of the environmental analysis to be included; comments should be limited to identifying the range of actions, alternatives, mitigation measures and potential environmental effects to be analyzed, and to eliminate any issues that do not need to be evaluated.  Comments may be made in person at the meeting or can be submitted electronically.

After the scoping meetings have concluded, state water board staff will prepare final draft policy language and submit it for peer review, possibly by the first quarter of 2013.  Afterwards, public workshops will be held, with possible adoption of the program in 2014.

  • For more information on the scoping meetings and how to submit comments electronically, click here.
  • For background information on the proposed program from the State Water Resources Control Board, click here.
  • For more information on the State Water Board’s Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program, click here.


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