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Published on Friday, July 11, 2014

Governor Inslee Announces New Approach on Major Water Quality Standards – the "Fish Consumption" Issue

“We greatly appreciate the Governor’s personal time and involvement in understanding how this issue affects the cities and utility ratepayers of Washington,” said Mike McCarty, AWC CEO. “We have learned over the last several years how incredibly complicated this issue is, so we are looking forward to seeing the details before we make a final assessment. However, we are encouraged with the Governor’s efforts to put forward a balanced plan to improve the health and safety of Washingtonians.”

Yesterday afternoon Governor Inslee announced a new approach on the contentious water quality standards update commonly referred to as the “fish consumption” rule. The rule will have a significant impact on the regulation of wastewater and stormwater over the coming decades, as water quality standards will become more stringent for many chemicals that may appear in municipal wastewater and stormwater. Cities have been engaged with this rule for several years, participating in several official and informal advisory bodies with the Governor and the Department of Ecology (DOE).

Below you will find a brief background of this issue, information on how this proposal advances the discussions, and specific technical details and timelines for Governor Inslee’s proposal.


This water quality standards update has come to be known as the “fish consumption” rule since a central element of the formula that generates the standards is based on the daily amount of fish consumed by a person (fish consumption rate). The general idea of how fish consumption relates to water quality, is that the quality of the State’s water will have an impact on the health of the fish living within it. The health of those fish will ultimately impact the health of the people who eat them – depending on how much fish a person eats. Under the current standards, the consumption rate is set at 6.5 grams of fish per person per day. There has been a multi-year effort by DOE to raise the consumption rate to more accurately reflect populations who generally consume higher amounts of fish, such as tribal members. The current standards also assume a theoretical cancer risk rate of 10-6. This means that if a person were to eat a 6.5 gram serving of fish from Washington waters every day for 70 years, he or she would have a one-in-one-million chance of developing cancer. Whether or not to adjust that cancer risk rate to other levels allowed by the EPA has also been a significant part of the discussion. This decision has a significant impact on the resulting standards and attainability.

Cities have participated in the rulemaking process for water quality standards, and support strong standards to protect water quality and human health. Since city utility ratepayers will ultimately be asked to fund systems that can meet these standards, AWC has focused on what the costs and benefits of these new standards would be, and whether potential new standards could actually be met with current technology. AWC has also expressed concern that severe problems with meeting standards may arise if elements of the formula are adjusted without careful consideration of what that will do to the ultimate water quality standards that we have to meet, and without providing additional flexibility and other adjustments within the rule.

Moving Forward

The recent announcement from the Governor begins a new phase in the discussions regarding water quality standards. In addition to announcing his proposed pathway forward on the standards, he also announced that his solution would be broader than just a water quality standard update. It would include a package of actions that attempt to focus on the sources of toxic pollutants instead of focusing solely on changes to standards for discharging entities. AWC has been advocating for the need for this broader approach because regulated dischargers, such as municipalities and industrial dischargers, are a small portion of the total water quality picture.

We are encouraged with the direction this proposal is taking, but cautious that a complicated issue such as this encompasses many details that need to be fully understood, and in some cases developed. In some senses, it is more straightforward how these proposals will impact wastewater facilities; however, significant questions remain on what this means for stormwater regulations. We have outlined the technical details of the new approach below.

AWC will continue to be closely involved with this process. If you have questions or comments, please contact Carl Schroeder.

Technical Details of Governor Inslee’s Proposal:

  • Increases the Fish Consumption Rate to 175 grams per day.
  • Applies a 10-5cancer risk level except where that would result in water quality standards becoming less stringent than they are today. This decision has a significant impact on the standards for certain toxics, and is a change from current policy that results in standards that are more likely to be attainable for local governments.
  • Incorporates a unique approach for Arsenic that reflects the fact that it is a naturally occurring toxic.
  • Includes a set of implementation tools designed to make compliance easier for permittees/dischargers, including variances and compliance schedules that are longer than currently practiced. This is a key component of the proposal for cities, and we need to carefully review details as they become available.
  • Outlines a suite of actions on non-point toxics centered around authority for the Department of Ecology to evaluate alternatives to certain priority toxic chemicals in manufacturing, and potentially ban the use of those with safer alternatives. Additional actions include: funding support for local source control efforts, monitoring and research, investment in new cleanup technology, and others. Details on these efforts are yet to be fleshed out, and will emerge over the next several months.


The Governor has directed the Department of Ecology to issue a preliminary draft rule no later than September 30. Governor Inslee will submit legislation to the Legislature in 2015 to enact elements of the broader toxic reduction package, and will make a decision on whether to adopt the final rule only after seeing the outcome of the session. He will then ask EPA to consider the benefits of the full package in determining federal approval of Washington’s clean water standards.