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Environmental Review Toolkit

Development of Statewide or Regional Water Quality Action Plans

The principal federal legislation concerning water quality is the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, as amended by the Clean Water Act of 1977 (CWA). This act along with its amendments regulates discharges of pollutants from both point and nonpoint sources. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many States have issued regulations implementing the CWA goal of achieving and maintaining a high standard of water quality in surface and ground waters. Federal agencies focus on water quality for different purposes, but all have a common goal of a clean water environment. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) addresses this goal, with policies, technical and research assistance that incorporate water quality and transportation issues together into a coordinated management approach.

The FHWA has identified the area of water quality as one of the elements under Objective #1, Environment Goal of our National Strategic Work Plan. The objective is to develop initiatives in cooperation with resource agencies to protect and enhance the natural environment. The water quality activity, stated as an option for achieving our objective by September 30, 1996, is to develop and implement regional or statewide water quality action plans. These plans would most likely be a coordinated effort with EPA, State environmental agencies, State departments of transportation and the FHWA to develop a plan of action for achieving common goals of transportation development and protection of water resources.

The purpose of this guidance is to provide a set of recommendations for the Regions to consider when developing an action plan and working with State and resource agencies on water quality issues. The guidance is written assuming any plan developed would continue current policies and procedures for the existing working relationship between the FHWA and the EPA or a State environmental agency or resource agency in areas which support common objectives, interests, and statutory requirements, but would initiate new areas of activities as they relate specifically to water quality. If needed, additional agreements also could be required to cover other specifics such as use of facilities, personnel, reimbursement, cooperative projects, and the transfer of funds.

We recommend the following general actions be included as components of a water quality action plan developed between the FHWA and other cooperating agencies such as the EPA, State environmental agencies, and other resource agencies:

1. Initiate Procedures to Identify Broadly Based Water Quality Issues.

Traditionally, environmental impacts associated with transportation development have been dealt with on a case by case, project-situated basis. However, a more effective way to achieve the best overall resource benefit may be to apply a broader approach to determining impacts and resource protection. A watershed or area-wide planning approach can balance numerously and often interacting, environmental objectives while also providing the information necessary to evaluate localized project impacts. Many States and local agencies have moved towards a more geographically oriented approach to land use planning and natural resource management. A water quality action plan provision could be to pull together the resources and expertise of all interested stakeholders, and local, State, and Federal agencies and develop an approach to address highway related water quality issues on a watershed basis.

An action plan may assure that highway development projects are coordinated with area wide water quality and environmental goals. Also, the information contained in highway development plans may become important for future water quality and resource protection planning activities. Such interaction may require an inventory of existing resources in the watershed as a basis for decisions. Any areas of identified water quality problems should be defined, along with recommendations on protecting these resources.

2. Promote and Support Coordination of Monitoring Measures.

The CWA gives States the responsibility to monitor and assess their waters and report the results to the EPA. Monitoring is also done to fulfill specific regulatory requirements, such as those of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting process. An action plan provision could be written to describe coordination of NPDES and other required monitoring activities to help assure that expenditures for data collection are held to a minimum. Also, this should improve the delivery of programs that utilize monitoring information. Results could allow permits to be issued once on a watershed basis for specific project types and then programmatically applied on subsequent actions. Monitoring could also be applied on a watershed basis to aid agencies in establishing integrated mitigation measures which are based on the overall water quality improvement needs of the basin. Finally, a plan could promote and support efforts to develop new and more efficient methods of water quality monitoring in each basin.

3. Information Exchange and Technical Assistance

The FHWA and the EPA should be proactive leaders working in partnership with the States and local governments and resource agencies to develop joint training sessions, research, workshops, clearinghouses, and other items. A water quality action plan could highlight these activities and include commitments to work together in sharing information and technical expertise in the area of water quality.

Joint efforts to accomplish our short and long term goals for achieving and protecting water quality in areas of highway development may include:

  • Providing training sessions on erosion and sediment control, nonpoint source pollution, stormwater management, and watershed resource planning and management.
  • Developing best management practices (BMP) guidance describing issues of where and when to use specific facilities, when treatment measures are required, and what treatment measures are most effective.
  • Developing education and outreach information on highway operation and maintenance activities and the potential impacts to water quality; examples include storage of deicing salt, use of pesticides and construction site chemicals.
  • Helping States to establish watershed management areas.
  • Developing guidance on making full use of ISTEA environmental enhancement activities and funds for mitigating water pollution due to highway runoff.
  • Developing guidance on achieving water quality improvement by managing stormwater management facilities.
  • Establishing a phone line for information or inquiries on water quality issues.
  • Establishing a web site on Internet
  • Providing sample planning and zoning guidelines relating land use to water quality. An example would be the establishment of buffers or areas to protect riparian habitat along drainage ways and stream corridors.
  • Developing guidance on stormwater management (water quality) and how wetlands can serve a dual function as habitat mitigation and water quality management practice.
  • Providing technical transfer and information on performing resource inventories, water quality monitoring, mapping, and data storage/presentation.

4. Responsibilities

The FHWA, the EPA, States, and State agencies share a common interest in encouraging responsible and efficient management of the resources involved in our nation’s transportation system, and a need to protect and enhance these resources. The FHWA’s interest included addressing the connection between land use development and transportation, and ways in which to minimize the impacts of highway runoff within a watershed. We need not only understand the technical aspects of highway design and maintenance, but also the impacts it has on the environment.

Roadways tend to bisect watersheds. Water quality impacts attributed to erosion, sedimentation, and polluted runoff associated with highway construction, operation, and maintenance may be limited to the adjacent streams. In the watershed downstream, the impact from the road may be offset or diluted by the contributions of the various other land uses. But overall the watershed is impacted by the combined contributions of various land use activities. This indicates the need to take an approach to the water quality issues on a regional or watershed approach. This overall approach will incorporate various players and activities that can protect this valuable resource.

The EPA’s role includes the prevention, reduction, and abatement of pollution in the air, water, and soil by setting and enforcing standards for pollutants including pesticides, toxic substances, radiation, noise, and solid waste. These programs are carried out through a delegation of power to the State and local entities through technical assistance and cooperation. The FHWA’s responsibilities involve providing financial and technical assistance to the States and local governments for the design and construction of highways. This responsibility includes oversight on federally-assisted projects to ensure compliance with environmental statues and other program requirements. The agency is also responsible for conducting a program of research and development in transportation technology. These responsibilities carried out under and action plan will strengthen coordination, cooperation, and communication between Federal agencies, the States, and local communities, and will establish a working partnership to include objectives and procedures to protect, enhance, and preserve water quality.

5. Compliance and Enforcement.

The water quality action plan will establish management goals and practices that can be achieved by State and local governments to help protect and maintain their water quality standards. The action plan will incorporate and establish time frames for activity programs in each region and include procedures for reevaluation and revisions. To ensure compliance, the action plan should be supported with enforceable policies and mechanisms (such as Memorandum of Understanding, official agency orders, local regulations, etc.). Voluntary compliance can be achieved through encouragement provided by citizen groups. These mechanisms are paramount to ensuring a total commitment to the action plan and its implementation.

Management measured to be addressed in the water quality action plan could include the following:

  • Protect areas that provide water quality benefits (e.g., wetlands, aquatic ecosystems, riparian areas, wellhead sites, etc.), and protect areas that are susceptible to erosion (e.g., unstable soils, karst materials, landslide areas, fragile stream banks).
  • Develop erosion and sediment control strategies at the planning and design state to be implemented during construction, and operation, and maintenance.
  • Ensure the proper use, storage, and disposal of toxic substances at construction sites and maintenance facilities; develop oil spill contingency plans and clean up procedures.
  • Identify watershed pollution reduction opportunities to reduce pollutant concentrations and volumes entering surface waters.
  • Promote the use of vegetative methods to control erosion and other feasible methods to reduce pollutant loadings and total suspended solids from reaching surface waters.
  • Perform water quality monitoring to assess pollution load reduction and changes in water quality.

6. Implementation of Plan

The FHWA, the EPA, State DOTs, and State environmental agencies will promote adoption and implementation of the water quality action plan through their regional and State departments. The action plan’s framework will integrate water quality issues and other environmental considerations into the planning, design, operation, and maintenance of transportation programs and projects on a watershed management scale. The action plan will include provisions to reevaluate and amend water quality management measures and the time frames established to implement these measures.

The FHWA divisions and regional offices will be encouraged to be proactive leaders in developing working partnerships with States, MPOs, and local governments to ensure implementation of the action plan.

Questions and feedback should be directed to Susan Jones (, 202-493-2139).