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Groundwater - Groundwater Protection

water federal programs act

States' Role

Prevention of groundwater contamination is largely the responsibility of state and local government. In 1991 the EPA established a national groundwater protection strategy to place greater emphasis on comprehensive state management of groundwater resources. The EPA recognized that the wide range of land-use practices that can adversely affect groundwater quality is most effectively managed at the state and local level. The states use three basic approaches to protect groundwater and address the problems of contaminants and contamination sources:

  • Nondegradation policies that are designed to protect groundwater quality at its existing level.
  • Limited degradation policies that involve setting up water quality standards to protect groundwater. These standards set maximum contamination levels for chemicals and bacteria and establish guidelines for taste, odor, and color of the water.
  • Groundwater classification systems that are similar to the classification systems for surface waters established under the Clean Water Act and its amendments.

These classification systems are used by state officials to determine which aquifers should receive higher or lower priorities for protection and cleanup. High-priority areas include recharge areas, which affect large quantities of water, or public water supplies, where pollution affects drinking water. The SDWA requirements for state programs that address protection of wellheads used as drinking water sources, coupled with other federal and state source water protection programs, should lead to better, more coordinated management of potential drinking water contaminant sources within drinking water source protection areas.

The most important benefit derived from comprehensive groundwater management approaches is the ability to establish coordinated priorities among the many groups involved in groundwater management. The following key components are common to successful state programs:

  • Enacting legislation
  • Promulgating protection regulations
  • Establishing interagency coordination with surface water and other programs
  • Performing groundwater mapping and classification
  • Monitoring ambient groundwater quality
  • Developing comprehensive data management systems
  • Adopting and implementing prevention and remediation programs

TABLE 4.2
Federal laws affecting ground water administered by the EPA
SOURCE: Adapted from "Federal Laws Administered by EPA Affecting Ground Water," in Safe Drinking Water Act, Section 1429 Groundwater Report to Congress, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1999

Clean Water Act (CWA)
Ground water protection is addressed in Section 102 of the CWA, providing for the development of federal, state, and local comprehensive programs for reducing, eliminating, and preventing ground water contamination.
Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
Under the SDWA, EPA is authorized to ensure that water is safe for human consumption. To support this effort, SDWA gives EPA the authority to promulgate Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) that define safe levels for some contaminants in public drinking water supplies. One of the most fundamental ways to ensure consistently safe drinking water is to protect the source of that water (i.e., ground water). Source water protection is achieved through four programs: the Wellhead Protection Program (WHP), the Sole Source Aquifer Program, the Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program, and, under the 1996 Amendments, the Source Water Assessment Program.
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
The intent of RCRA is to protect human health and the environment by establishing a comprehensive regulatory framework for investigating and addressing past, present, and future environmental contamination or ground water and other environmental media. In addition, management of underground storage tanks is also addressed under RCRA.
Comprehensive Environmental, Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)
CERCLA provides a federal "superfund" to clean-up soil and ground water contaminated by uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites as well as accidents, spill, and other emergency releases of pollutants and contaminants into the environment. Through the Act, EPA was given power to seek out those parties responsible for any release and assure their cooperation in the clean-up. The program is designed to recover costs, when possible, from financially viable individuals and companies when the clean-up is complete.
Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)
FIFRA protects human health and the environment from the risks of pesticide use by requiring the testing and registration of all chemicals used as active ingredients of pesticides and pesticide products. Under the Pesticide Management Program, states and tribes wishing to continue use of chemicals of concern are required to prepare a prevention plan that targets specific areas vulnerable to ground water contamination.
Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA)
SARA reauthorized CERCLA in 1986 to continue cleanup activities around the country. Several site-specific amendments, definitions clarifications, and technical requirements were added to the legislation, including additional enforcement authorities.

Lack of funding targeted directly to groundwater is the reason most commonly cited by states for their limited efforts in undertaking a more comprehensive approach to groundwater issues. Groundwater is not a high priority for funding. In most states the funding is directed toward state or federally mandated programs. Mandated programs are generally specific as to how and for what purposes money can be spent, often precluding the state from using the funds to address nonmandated groundwater protection priorities even when the result would prevent groundwater pollution in the future. Funding targeted to groundwater concerns would allow the states to better address the problems of program fragmentation within the state and to provide basic program needs such as monitoring, resource characterization, and the development and implementation of protection programs.

Ultimately, surface water and groundwater protection takes place at the state and local level, where the costs and benefits are recognized initially. This financial burden is often beyond the resources of state and local governments, which struggle to meet federal, state, and local mandates in many widely differing arenas with limited resources.

Federal Role

Federal laws, regulations, and programs since the 1970s have reflected the growing recognition of the need to protect the nation's groundwater and use it wisely. Table 4.2 summarizes the federal laws affecting groundwater. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act) in 1972 and the SDWA in 1974 began the federal role in groundwater protection. The passage of the RCRA in 1976 and CERCLA (or Superfund) in 1980 cemented the federal government's current focus on groundwater remediation. Since the passage of these acts, the federal government has directed billions of dollars in private and public money and resources toward cleanup of contaminated groundwater at Superfund, RCRA corrective action facilities, and leaking USTs.

Until this time, the emphasis in federal and state programs has been on cleaning up existing contamination, not on pollution prevention. The cleanup programs have been very costly. These costs have become considerable incentives for the private, state, local, and federal sectors to investigate and implement preventive measures.

Certain federal and state programs are designed to prevent groundwater contamination. The problem is that these programs tend to focus on a narrow set of contaminants or contaminant sources. For example, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act established regulations to prevent groundwater contamination resulting from pesticide use.

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