Water System Permitting and Compliance 101

Organizing and navigating your way out of the water industry's permit 'storm' while preparing for a digital future.


Key takeaways:

  1. While managing the mountain of permitting and other compliance-related responsibilities involved in running a utility can feel daunting, surveying the compliance landscape and developing familiarity with major EPA programs is a great starting point.
  2. Becoming acquainted with the EPA's new eReporting requirements and preparing for them is a great way to cut down on administrative work and signal that your utility is serious about streamlining reporting processes.
  3. Staying ahead of new regulations related to PFAS and Lead and Copper will be key to staying on top of compliance challenges and building robust permitting management programs.

Managing the storm of permits, rules and other regulations involved in running a water system can be a time-intensive, daunting, and even exasperating task. It isn’t unusual for larger utilities in the U.S. to juggle hundreds or even thousands of permits and regulatory responsibilities at any particular moment.The rules in these programs can change often, and the knowledge required to stay on top of them often lives inside the heads of a handful of veteran employees. If you’re just starting out, wrapping your head around everything you need to do to stay compliant can feel impossible.One of the most effective ways to reduce the time you spend tracking and organizing mandated testing for these permits is to adopt an effective permit management system like Klir.But it also helps to take a step back and to acquaint yourself with federal and state organizations that issue permits, reporting requirements, and recent changes.To bring you up to speed, this guide reviews three important topics in water permitting:

  1. First, we’ll introduce some of the most important permit-issuing authorities in the United States at the federal and state level.
  2. Second, we’ll take a look at the reporting requirements for those programs, including important changes to those requirements, like the EPA’s eReporting initiatives.
  3. Finally, we’ll review some of the newest regulations in water and what you can do to prepare for them today.

EPA-Related Permits and Regulations

As a federal agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is necessarily responsible for key permits relevant to water systems.EPA permitting covers the mandates of the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA), hazardous waste permitting regulations, and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). It also covers the Clean Air Act (CAA), which is relevant to water facilities producing certain minimum amounts of air pollution.

SDWA Drinking Water Standards

Through the Public Water System Supervision (SWSS) program, the EPA protects 90 percent of the USA’s drinking water. In partnership with individual states, the EPA monitors the analytic testing results of samples taken by water systems, ensuring they stay within threshold amounts of chemical and microbial contaminants.

Consumer Confidence Reports (CCR)

The EPA also partners with states to make sure that local water systems follow the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) rule.

This rule requires local water systems to prepare and distribute a brief annual report summarizing information about water sources, compliance, detected contaminants, and educational programs. 

The aim is to increase consumer awareness about how their water systems run, provide information on safe water use, and increase dialogue between consumers and their water utilities.

The water system must deliver a copy of this report to state authorities. Additionally, if it serves over 100,000 customers, it must post the report online using EPA’s CCR iWriter tool.

Hazardous Waste Permitting Regulations

The EPA also partners with states to administer hazardous waste permitting regulations. These regulations are intended as a “cradle to the grave” management system for hazardous wastes, controlling how they’re produced, transported, stored, and eventually disposed of.That being said, hazardous waste permits aren’t only relevant to facilities that manage and dispose of waste. Gasoline, diesel, and batteries all qualify as hazardous wastes. And facilities running industrial boilers, furnaces, or generators may also need permits to operate.

Clean Air Act (CAA) Permits

When a water system produces enough air pollutants, it’s required to obtain a Clean Air Act (CAA) permit—typically, a Title V Permit. In some cases, this is provided by an EPA Regional Office. But typically CAA permits are handled by state, local, and tribal authorities.

Title V permits

Broadly, any source that has the potential to emit (PTE) 100 tons per year of air pollutants is classified under the CAA as a “major source,” and needs a Title V permit to operate. Pollutants fall into six categories:

  • Particulate matter
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Ozone
  • Lead
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Nitrogen dioxide

A source also qualifies if it emits more than 100,000 carbon dioxide equivalent tons per year, uses a solid waste incinerator, or meets a few other specific thresholds. You can learn more about qualifying for a Title V permit here.

Title V permits last for five years after they’re issued. In order to keep their permit, a major source must monitor, record, and report their pollutant output. The specific methods for measuring and reporting vary according to each type of pollutant.

Other Permits at the Federal Level

Outside those permits directly administered by EPA, there are a number of federal-level permits that water systems may need to obtain.

Section 401 Water Quality Certifications

Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act (CWA), before any federal agency issues a permit allowing discharge into US waters, the state or tribe responsible for the area where the discharge originates must issue a Section 401 permit.They can also waive certification—either expressly, or by failing to issue a 401 within a reasonable amount of time.Even though they’re administered at the state and tribal level, 401s are federally mandated; there’s nowhere in the USA that a water system can get a federal permit to discharge into US waters without applying for a 401.

US Army Corps of Engineers Permits

In order for a water system to perform any construction or dredging in the USA’s navigable waters, it must apply for a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers.There are two types of permits:

  1. Individual or standard permits, issued when projects have “more than individual or cumulative impacts,” and must be evaluated based on environmental criteria, requiring a public interest review.
  2. General permits, issued for projects that will have minimal impact. They’re issued on the individual, nationwide, or category-specific level. 

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Preliminary Permits and Licenses

Any water utility involved in the construction of a hydroelectric project must be licensed by FERC. The licensing process typically begins with application for a preliminary permit, good for four years, that reserves the organization a spot in FERC’s queue of license applicants while the organization explores the potential location and other considerations prior to beginning construction. In order to start construction, the organization must obtain a hydropower license from FERC.

State and Local Level Permits

The permits covered above are all administered at the federal level, often in partnership with states and tribes. But, in order for any given water utility to carry out day-to-day activities, they must apply for and manage a swath of permits at the state and municipal level.While these permits are absolutely necessary and may in fact comprise the better part of a water system’s compliance and reporting tasks, they’re so specific to each particular utility and locale that it’s impossible to cover them in detail here.If you’re unsure about permit requirements at the local level for water systems, get in touch with your municipal and state authorities.

Know You're Compliant With Klir

Tracking permits is a massive task. Klir gives you an all-in-one solution that guarantees nothing slips through the cracks. Learn more about Klir’s powerful permit management solution and book a demo today.Learn More

What Is Electronic Reporting, and What Does It Mean for Utilities?

Rather than requiring you to stay compliant by submitting reports via physical mail or e-mail, the EPA is increasingly requiring utilities to do their reporting through online portals like NetDMR and the Central Data Exchange (CDX).In most states the only report you’re currently required to e-report is the Discharge Monitoring Report (DMR), the form wastewater utilities use to self-report compliance with environmental law in the United States on a weekly or monthly basis.But according to the EPA’s eReporting rule, utilities across the country will soon have to start using these portals to submit other reports like:

These reports are longer than DMRs and require a lot more manual work, which will make moving important reporting data out of paper and spreadsheets and into platforms like Klir all the more important.An exhaustive list of all the reports that utilities will have to start reporting under the eReporting rule is available under the "Phase 2" heading of the EPA’s eReporting website.

CROMERR and What It Means for Electronic Reporting

The Cross-Media Electronic Reporting Regulation (CROMERR) establishes standards for the systems that receive reports and other documents that utilities submit to satisfy many of the programs mentioned above.CROMERR-compliant systems ensure the integrity of electronic documents, that a Copy of Record is created, and that documents are signed with a proper Electronic Signature.

Why eReporting Is Important

Because many of the EPA’s eReporting requirements aren’t due to kick in for another few years, you might wonder whether preparing for it now is worth the time and money.It absolutely is. Eliminating paper documents and manual data entry from your workflows can save you hours a week in administration work and free up your staff for more important tasks.Electronic reporting also cuts down on the risks of error, makes it easier to follow reporting requirements, and shows regulators that you’re serious about streamlining your reporting processes.

New Compliance Challenges and What They Mean for Utilities

In addition to changes around electronic reporting methods, regulators are also constantly changing and refining the contents of regulatory programs themselves.Staying compliant means anticipating and preparing for new regulations, like the ones around effluents on the EPA’s UCMR lists. Here’s a brief rundown of the most important changes in the pipeline and what you can do now to prepare.


Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS — pronounced “PEE-Fass”) are a class of synthetic “forever chemicals” that have been linked to everything from cancer to high cholesterol.

We’re currently in the eye of storm when it comes new PFAS-related regulations. Maine has already banned the chemicals, 29 states have introduced numerical PFAS limits for water, and the White House is publicly detailing its anti-PFAS plan. Recently the EPA announced that 29 of the next 30 pollutants it would look at under its Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) would be PFAS. Most experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before utilities will have to start sampling discharges and biosolids for many of the chemicals on this list.

The EPA has awarded millions in grants for PFAS research and mitigation. The agency said data gathered from the latest Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule “will also serve as a potential source of information for systems with infrastructure funding needs for emerging contaminant remediation,” which makes compliance with UCMR 5 crucial.

Lead and Copper

Last year the EPA released the biggest overhaul to its Lead and Copper rule since 1991, and in November Congress included $15 billion for lead pipe replacement in its infrastructure plan, signaling that U.S. regulators were finally getting serious about lead in drinking water.

One of the biggest changes to the EPA's Lead and Copper rule so far has to do with sampling—specifically the new rule that requires a fifth-liter (L5) sample at homes with lead service lines (LSLs) rather than the original first-liter (L1) sample to demonstrate compliance with water lead level (WLL) limits.

In preparation for the effort to replace all lead service lines with copper ones, utilities must also start building out lead service line inventories, which collect as much information as possible about which service lines in a distribution system are made of lead.

In most cases the EPA has delegated responsibility for inventory requirements to states, which means rules around how exhaustive these inventories must be will vary. Municipalities without access to complete historical records for lead line installations, for example, might be able to apply probabilistic approaches to determining how much lead is in their system.

How Klir Can Help

Klir is a single, unified operating system for water, pulling compliance, sampling, reporting and more into an easy to use dashboard.Learn moreabout how Klir can help your organization manage permits, cut down on administration and record-keeping work, and provide a level of organization-wide visibility unmatched by other systems.