Water quality standards update

Proposed changes could better protect human health and the environment

person paddling a canoe

Good water quality is important to all who enjoy the outdoors in our great state.

This time of year, most of us can’t wait to get into or on the water. Our state water quality standards are in place to make sure we can safely swim and boat in our waterbodies. Historically, we’ve kept Washington waters clean by measuring the presence of fecal coliform bacteria at beaches, lakes, rivers and streams. Fecal coliform has been used as an indicator of contaminants that can make us sick, like viruses and parasites.

However, there are now more precise bacteria testing methods available to identify when harmful pathogens are present, and we need your thoughts on making a change to how we measure water quality to keep waterbodies safe for swimming and other recreation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and many other states, have moved from fecal coliform testing to different bacteria standards. We are following suit, proposing a transition to E. coli testing in freshwater and enterococci bacteria in saltwater. These tests are a more precise indicator of contaminants that can affect human health and the environment.

What’s affected, what isn’t

Water quality standards are used to determine compliance with the state’s wastewater discharge rules, permitting, monitoring, and prioritizing cleanup plans for waterbodies. The standards are not related to beach closures, which are managed by local health departments.

This rule update will not change the water quality testing for shellfish used by the Washington State Department of Health to classify shellfish as safe for consumption. Fecal coliform bacteria will continue to be measured in saltwater to protect shellfish harvesting areas, using standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Advisory committee feedback

Last October, Ecology announced the idea of changing the water quality standards and reached out to interested parties to weigh-in on the issue. Based on those responses, we convened a technical advisory team in January made up of members from regulated industries, environmental groups, and tribes.

Two kids at the beach

Two children explore a beach in Birch Bay. 

The team assessed the current standards and recommended moving to the new standards. The team also helped Ecology anticipate what education and outreach will be needed as Washington transitions to the new testing methods.

We are now seeking comments from the public on the transition. The comment period is open now and runs through Sept. 14, 2018. There will be five public hearings for this rule proposal, including online webinars and in-person meetings in Tukwila and Spokane.

For a complete listing of the hearing dates and details, as well as the proposed language, visit Ecology’s Recreational Use Criteria rulemaking webpage.

Visit the water quality standards webpage for more information.