Managing permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) is complex and high stakes for water utilities.
Ensuring NPDES compliance at your utility is not just important—it’s critical. While some discharges are routine and controlled, others are unplanned and can come up suddenly, such as combined sewer overflows, pipe breaks, and water main leaks. Either way, under NPDES they must be properly documented and reported. Failing to meet these requirements can result in hefty regulatory fines. In some situations, mismanaging NPDES compliance could even lead to a jail sentence.
What is NPDES?
The Clean Water Act prohibits anybody from discharging pollutants through a point source (such as a water or wastewater utility), into a “water of the United States” unless they have an NPDES permit. The permit includes limits on what you can discharge, stipulates monitoring and reporting requirements, and outlines other provisions to protect water quality and human health.
Achieving NPDES coverage in California
Managing water pollutants is a huge concern for water and wastewater utilities. In California, it’s a particularly big issue.
“Unlike some other states, we don’t have a lot of water. When utilities discharge into limited receiving waters, any pollutants are more likely to have an environmental impact,” says Francois Rodigari, Director of Corporate Sustainability & Innovation for San Jose Water.
Despite this, for years drinking water utilities did not qualify for existing discharge permits—even for routine reasons.
“In some cases, the regional water quality control board fined utilities for discharge incidents, even though there was no NPDES permit available to them,” he adds. “While most drinking water utilities followed the general NPDES requirements, we didn’t have permit coverage and consequently we weren’t doing any reporting. Our utilities were at risk.”
Rodigari was Director of Water Quality and Environmental Services when San Jose Water decided it would seek out better ways to manage NPDES. His team was instrumental in developing the Statewide General NPDES Permit for Drinking Water System Discharges to Waters of the United States, which the California State Water Board adopted in November 2014. Today, all utilities in the state with 1,000 connections or more are required to apply for an NPDES permit (unless they qualify under another permit).
Ensuring NPDES compliance through Best Management Practices
With a state-wide solution, it’s now easier for utilities to make NPDES permit applications. For some utilities, NPDES has also underscored the importance of building and maintaining an accessible database.
“For NPDES compliance, we have to track and report our discharges when they’re over a certain volume,” says Rodigari. “There are annual reporting requirements, too. It’s a lot of information to manage.”
To support the state’s water utilities as they navigate NPDES, the San Jose Water Environmental Compliance group also led an effort to update the Best Management Practices Manual (BMP) for Drinking Water System Releases for the California-Nevada Section of the American Water Works Association. The manual provides directions on how to minimize and handle the number of planned and unplanned discharges.
How to handle common NPDES challenges:
For many utilities, moving toward NPDES compliance is part of an ongoing commitment to implementing best management practices. For others, it means taking a brand new approach to managing data and meeting reporting requirements.
Wherever you are in the process, achieving NPDES compliance probably means your utility will be going through some changes.
With this in mind, we asked Rodigari to share some of his team’s best practices for improving utility performance and making NPDES reporting easier.
1. An effective data management system is key to achieving ISO 14001 standards
Achieving compliance in line with ISO 14001 standards means setting up an effective environmental management system. The requirements are extensive, Rodigari says. “Most utilities are actively working toward meeting the management framework, but it remains a complex process.”
Rodigari says choosing a secure, robust compliance system to manage your utility’s data is a critical part of the ISO 14001 journey.
“As an industry, we can no longer depend on spreadsheets,” he says. “The environmental and economic risks are too great.”
NPDES reporting requires utilities to track permit obligations, discharges, reporting, and fines. With the right platform in place, you can achieve compliance, but your utility can also raise its game. “When you can visualize your data and reports, it’s easier to see the ways you can improve your utility’s performance,” he says.
2. Track hazardous waste sites assessment data for reporting—and future projects
As a 150-year-old utility, San Jose Water often learns about legacy sites through site assessments for construction, renovation, or facility retirement.
“When we complete an assessment, we generate a lot of data about the soil and hazmat that we might not have already known existed on the site,” Rodigari says.
San Jose Water uses this information to prepare bidding documents. “Contractors need to know about any precautions they need to take during demolition and disposal,” he says.
If the findings require action, the utility might map the site and construct barriers to ensure runoff doesn’t migrate to another property. In other cases, the utility works with Santa Clara County and the Department of Environmental Health to propose a cleanup and remediation plan.
Furthermore, the utility maps the sites to protect workers. “If future work will disturb the soil, workers need to know,” Rodigari says.
With more than 100 properties, San Jose Water can’t manage everything with individual engineering reports, Rodigari adds. “We need our data to be readily available and easy to retrieve. It’s critical for managers to have that information.”
3. Keep a central record of hazmat manifests
A utility is required—and has an obligation—to manage hazardous materials manifests in order to minimize liability from cradle to grave, Rodigari says. “When you have multiple entities generating and disposing of waste on your utility’s behalf, you need a system that allows everyone to report uniformly.”
In California there are tax requirements associated with generating hazmat and solid waste. Manifests play a key role in the ability to draw an inventory and understand its fate, he adds, so it’s important to store them in a platform that is easy to query.
4. Remove the burden of gathering environmental and compliance data with automated reports and alerts
Automating NPDES reports can lift a huge administrative burden for a utility. The first challenge, however, is making sure you have all of the relevant data in the right place.
Rodigari says it can take time to harmonize NPDES data sources, but it should be an important priority. “Across our utility, several teams generate discharges, from operations to contractors to field service. Ensuring all reports are properly filed in one platform and easy to retrieve is a best practice that can protect your utility from liability.”
For San Jose Water, fully automating all NPDES reporting is a goal for the longer term. In the meantime, the utility is aiming to collect all data in one platform, Rodigari says. And, to ensure compliance, the utility’s platform is programmed to send reminders to parties responsible for collecting data that the NPDES permit requires. “If there’s a failure to document, the platform issues an escalation. This helps managers track and follow up on missed deadlines.”
Improving performance and environmental impact with NPDES best practices
Rodigari says he’s confident that the state-wide NPDES permit has improved best management practices in California’s water utilities. For San Jose Water, that’s meant a major shift in the way the utility manages discharges.
“We’re doing a better job of ensuring water quality, including reducing turbidity, and removing chlorine prior to discharge,” Rodigari says. “We’re also minimizing water loss during discharges, and we’ve set some ambitious goals in terms of non-revenue water.”
Rodigari credits the utility’s hard work, as well as the way the industry is starting to think about data and reporting. “Making sense of our data is an important step in the path to improving our environmental impact and organizational performance,” he says. “That’s the point of NPDES.”