Water Compliance and Enforcement

By: Adam Stephenson | Sep 09, 2020

Did you know that sip of water you took from the faucet today was most likely regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)? Public drinking water systems regulated by the EPA provide water to 90 percent of Americans.  Almost all public drinking water and wastewater discharges are regulated by the EPA. The EPA sets strict regulations on these discharges to ensure the safety of not only the environment but also the public health. The EPA takes enforcing these regulations very seriously. Enforcement actions can result in large monetary fines and even jail time for some offenders. We will cover a brief history of regulations of water and wastewater discharges. We will also discuss the array of enforcement actions the EPA has at their disposal.

Drinking Water

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was passed by Congress in 1974 to protect the quality of Americans’ drinking water. Under SDWA, the EPA is given authority to set standards for drinking water quality and regulate users who implement those standards. The EPA sets maximum contaminant levels and/or treatment technique requirements for over 90 different contaminants in drinking water, including microorganisms, disinfectants, inorganic and organic chemicals, and radionuclides. Public drinking water systems must meet these health-based federal standards for contaminants, including performing regular monitoring and reporting. Monitoring public water system compliance involves the review and evaluation of test results from water samples. The analytical reports from testing provide the water systems and regulators data they need to ensure that drinking water monitoring is on-going and standards are being met.  When tests indicate that a contaminant is at a level that exceeds standards, states and EPA work with public water systems to take steps to prevent or remove the contaminants and return the system to compliance.


The EPA also regulates the discharge and treatment of wastewater under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) issues permits to all point source wastewater dischargers and treatment facilities. These permits establish specific discharge limits, monitoring and reporting requirements, and may also require these facilities to undertake special measures to protect the environment from harmful pollutants. Similar to drinking water, primary means of monitoring wastewater compliance are the review and evaluation of test results of wastewater samples. These analytical results are entered into a Discharge Monitoring Reports (DMRs) and submitted to federal or state regulatory agencies.


Unfortunately, things happen within a plant or organization that can lead to non-compliance. The EPA takes these compliance violations seriously and has different levels of penalties and enforcement actions based upon intent, severity, and frequency of violations. Civil administrative actions are enforcement actions taken by EPA or a state under its own authority. An administrative action by EPA or a state agency may be in the form of a notice of violation (NOV) or notice of deficiency (NOD) depending on how far out of compliance the results were. These regulatory agencies can also collect civil penalties in the form of a monetary assessment. Penalties incentivize coming into compliance and staying in compliance with the environmental regulations. Penalties are designed around the economic loss of noncompliance and the seriousness of the violation.  The EPA can also mandate an order to direct an individual or business to take action to regain compliance. If the civil administrative actions are not effective, the EPA can take civil judicial actions in the form of lawsuits. Criminal actions can also occur but are reserved for the most serious violations, those that are willful, or knowingly committed. A court conviction can result in fines, restitution, and/or imprisonment.  The majority of plants are consistently working to maintain compliance with the regulations.

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