Major river systems historically were selected for settlement and establishing communities. These waters were important for bringing energy and trade to the community, and also provided the conveyance for carrying away unwanted waste products. As towns and cities arose, the flowing waters around them were often channelized and impounded, providing the power and means to drive industry and commerce. Population centers grew and the use of outdoor privies and water closets created public nuisances and obvious health hazards. By the 1890's sewer construction began in major cities to alleviate these problems, conveying domestic wastes directly into nearby waterbodies; in many cases the expected health benefits were not realized. Downstream settlements receiving their drinking water from the same waterbody saw the incidences of typhoid and other waterborne diseases soar. Despite these recognized human health impacts and the need for laws to mitigate their effects, it was a slow evolution. In 1899, the Rivers and Harbors Act was passed. This was the first real legislation that addressed water pollution, and arose primarily out of concern for keeping waters open to navigation and clear of refuse that could pose a hazard. The act prohibited the discharge of "any refuse matter of any kind or description whatever other than that flowing from streets and sewers and passing therefrom in a liquid state." Water pollution remained relatively unchecked for the next several decades and was considered a local problem that was best left to individual cities and towns to address.
World War II changed the scope of water pollution dramatically. Industry exploded to support the war effort, and new facilities were springing up along waterways. Many new chemicals and industrial byproducts entered the waste stream during this period. Industrial effluents were unregulated and unimpeded. The nation's focus was to support the war effort.
In 1948 the Water Pollution Control Act was passed, modestly advancing water pollution control in the post war era. This allowed the federal government to provide loans for wastewater treatment plant construction, and provide grants for state and local agencies to investigate pollutant sources. In 1956, these same principles and means of controlling pollutants were continued under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA). Major water quality improvements were still far off however, as the legislation provided minimal funding and gave the federal government little enforcement authority. It was apparent that progress toward cleaner waters was minimal, and in 1965 the Water Quality Act was passed. This Act provided the federal government a much stronger oversight role, provided funding for water quality planning programs, and directed states to develop water quality standards for navigable interstate waters. Amendments to the FWPCA in 1972 changed the law to apply water quality standards to not only interstate waters, but in-state waters as well, thereby encompassing all surface waters of the United States. A permitting system was established (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES) for point sources, regulating all "end-of-pipe" discharges to surface waters. Additional amendments to the Act took place in 1977, 1983, and 1987, and today all are collectively referred to as the Clean Water Act. To name a few, these amendments specified technological controls for industry and municipalities to mitigate impacts from their waste streams, required states to identify areas affected by nonpoint pollution sources, addressed the issue of ocean dumping, mandated adoption of various land use planning processes, divided pollutants into various classes (conventional, nonconventional, and toxic), and set standards. As a result of these federal mandates, states adopted programs to fulfill the various requirements of the Clean Water Act and monitor the state's waters.
An Overview of Water Quality Standards
The establishment of water quality standards is one of the key components of the Clean Water Act, setting the desired water quality goals to be met by the state.
Water quality standards can be defined as specific provisions of state or federal law that are adopted to "protect the public health and welfare, enhance the quality of the water, and serve the purposes of the Clean Water Act."
Water quality standards ensure the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the state's waters are maintained and provide for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, wildlife, and recreation that takes place in and on the water. Water quality standards require states to designate various uses to their waterbodies, which in turn determine the level of water quality to be achieved in order to meet the goals of the Clean Water Act. New Hampshire defines these designated uses by classifying the waterbodies.
Since 1991, the surface waters of New Hampshire have been classified by the state legislature (RSA 485-A:8) as either Class A or Class B. Class A waters are considered to be of the highest quality and considered optimal for use as water supplies after adequate treatment. Sewage discharges are prohibited in these waterbodies. Class B waters are considered acceptable for fishing, swimming, and other recreational purposes, and for use as water supplies after adequate treatment has been applied. Prior to 1991, some waterbodies were in a Class C category and were considered usable only for non-contact recreational purposes such as fishing and boating, and for some industrial purposes. All Class C waterbodies were legislatively upgraded to Class B in 1991. Waterbody classifications can be made for entire river or stream systems, or only for specific segments.
Waterbody classifications are supported by establishing numeric and narrative criteria. Numeric criteria are specific measures of water quality that are considered scientifically sound in order to protect the designated use of the waterbody/segment. These usually include parameters such as dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH, metals, and toxic pollutants. Narrative criteria apply to all designated uses and are statements that describe the desired level of water quality to be achieved, such as "all waters shall be free from substances in kind or quantity which settle to form harmful deposits, float as foam, scum, debris, or other visible substances, interfere with recreational activities..."
The final component of New Hampshire's Water Quality Standards are specific provisions established to ensure that degradation of existing beneficial uses and the level of water quality necessary to protect the existing uses are maintained and protected. These antidegradation provisions apply to such things as new or increasing point and nonpoint discharges of pollutants, alterations to the hydrology of a system caused by dams or flow diversions, and all activities that would lower water quality and affect the beneficial uses. Provisions are established for Class A, Class B, and Outstanding Resource Waters, which include national forest waters and those designated as natural under the New Hampshire Rivers Management and Protection Program.
Water Quality Monitoring Programs
NHDES has several ongoing surface water monitoring programs. These programs determine if water quality standards are being met through routine monitoring activities, provide educational opportunities to the general public, and conduct research and abatement practices on known pollutant sources. The following represents a list and brief summary of the various NHDES river water quality monitoring programs:
Ambient Monitoring Program: The ambient sampling program monitors approximately one hundred sites annually, collecting samples once a monthly during seasonally low streamflows in June, July, and August. Sites are rotated among the 5 major river basins. Additionally, 12 Primary Monitoring Network trend sites, and five National Water Quality Surveillance System sites are sampled every year and have been since 1974. Dissolved oxygen, temperature, conductivity, pH, turbidity, ammonia, phosphorus, total kjeldahl nitrogen and nitrate nitrogen, and E. coli bacteria are measured during each visit. Other parameters sampled at least once a year are metals (Al, Cu, Pb, Zn), hardness and alkalinity. Various parameters have been sampled historically and have either been discontinued or are monitored less frequently.
Volunteer monitoring: Volunteer monitoring is an integral component of NHDES monitoring efforts, providing additional data coverage of lakes and rivers to enhance water quality information in New Hampshire. The Watershed Management Bureau coordinates the Volunteer Lake Assessment Program (VLAP) and the Volunteer River Assessment Program (VRAP) These programs provide education, technical assistance, and equipment loans to enable citizens to be involved in protecting and monitoring their watershed.
Biomonitoring Program: This program was established to help fulfill the requirements of the Clean Water Act, "maintaining the biological integrity of the nation's waters." Aside from monitoring the resident aquatic communities in state waters for support of the aquatic life use designation, routine chemical parameters are monitored to complement the biological data. Dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH, conductivity, acid neutralizing capacity, and total dissolved solids are measured at each monitoring site and are usually taken several times at the same location through the course of the summer. Other parameters are measured depending on the specific nature of the site, site history, and determined need.
State Reporting on Water Quality
The results of the various NHDES monitoring program efforts are summarized and reported as public documents once every two years to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the United States Congress in a document that is referred to as the 305(b) report, after section 305(b) of the Clean Water Act.
Certain waters that are not meeting current water quality standards are prioritized and reported to USEPA and Congress on what is referred to as a 303(d) list, as defined in that section of the Clean Water Act. This is also a publicly available document. Other reports on water quality issues for rivers, lakes, and streams are published by NHDES as well as informative fact sheets on various water quality related topics.
All of these documents can be obtained from the NHDES Public Information Center at (603) 271-2975 or through the NHDES Web site.