Water Quality
February 25, 2015

One of the major environmental impacts of construction may be the degradation of water quality in streams, wetlands, and groundwater near the construction site. The following guidelines will help you prevent the pollution of valuable water resources.

Always check with local water quality authorities before beginning construction. As a contractor you are responsible for maintaining water quality standards at your job site even if your particular activity does not require a local, state, or federal permit.

Site Preparation and Preservation

Preserving natural features should be a primary goal for every new development. Many sites have natural features that add economic and practical value as well as aesthetic interest.

Trees save energy and dollars by providing shade and slowing winter winds. A natural stream corridor that manages surface water to prevent erosion is less expensive than installing storm drains. Streams, lakes, and wetlands buffer the effects of development and maintain fish and wildlife habitat.


Best Pollution Prevention Practices

  1. Keep natural features intact and healthy.
  2. Maintain habitat for fish and wildlife.
  3. Protect surface water from pollutants, sedimentation, and damage.
  4. Protect groundwater from surface drainage.


  • Do not fill or build on wetlands.
  • Clear only areas needed to install streets, driveways, parking areas, and building foundations.
  • Maintain or replant desirable and hardy native trees and shrubs.
  • Install and maintain oil and sediment traps in storm drains, especially in parking areas.
  • Use biofiltration (permeable bags filled with chips or bales of straw) during construction to control erosion.
  • Avoid using herbicides to remove vegetation.
  • Maintain varying heights of vegetation for wildlife (native ground covers, understory shrubs, mid-level trees, and high canopy trees) and a diverse mix of trees and shrubs.
  • Remove nuisance plants such as Purple Loosestrife and Stinging Nettles, and replant with native plants like Rushes, Sedges, and Cinquefoil.
  • Maintain a riparian forest buffer area as required by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) adjacent to streams, lakes, ponds, and wetlands. This is an area of trees, shrubs, or grass that reduces excess amounts of pollutants in surface runoff and shallow groundwater flow.




Protect Potable Water Quality

Most Americans obtain their drinking water from municipal sources. However, a significant number of people rely on groundwater as their sole source of drinking water. As a contractor, your activities could inadvertently contaminate drinking water sources (for example by spilling a hazardous chemical on the ground or by improperly decommissioning an underground storage tank). Protecting the quality of drinking water sources should always be considered during construction.

The well owner is responsible for determining the location of the well. As a contractor, you can avoid cleanup obligations for contamination through a written drilling agreement with the well owner. This agreement assigns disinfection responsibility for the well, protects against misunderstandings between you and the well owner, and usually specifies that the well owner is responsible for site cleanup.


  • Federal Safe Drinking Water Act: Federal statute protecting drinking water supplies.


Best Pollution Prevention Practices

Prevent pollution of drinking water sources.

  • Know your source of drinking water (well or municipal).
  • Check with the local public water supplier prior to construction (could be a municipal water bureau or a private corporation).
  • Septic drain fields must be located at least 100 feet away and down slope from the well. Double the distance in sandy soils or near shallow wells. Be aware of nearby neighbors’ wells and drain fields too.
  • Ask the water supplier if the project is in a wellhead protection zone.
  • Inquire about local requirements, such as spill containment procedures.
  • In the event of a hazardous chemical spill, contact your local water supplier immediately. You should also call the Disaster and Emergency Services office in your county.
  • Do not use old wells as disposal sites.
  • Design terrain to keep drainage away from wellhead.
  • Make sure hazardous or toxic materials are stored in secondary containment structures away from wellhead.
  • If a well sample needs to be taken because of contamination or routine selection, ensure that samples are properly disinfected.
  • Protect existing wells by ensuring that they are cased, sealed, or grouted before beginning construction and by protecting the area immediately surrounding the well from contaminants.
  • Protect new wells from surface water contamination by installing anti-back siphoning valves between the well and water pipes.
  • Keep proper absorbent materials on-site for initial response to spills.
  • Specify lead-free solder on copper water lines.
  • In areas known to have excess lead or other contaminants in the water supply, provide filtration for drinking water (best done at the tap).



  • County Disaster and Emergency Services office
  • Various State Agencies


Water Well Drilling

If you are planning the construction, drilling, or alteration of a water or monitoring well, you may need a variety of permits.  Water use permits may also be required.  Once again these regulations are variable by geographic location.  The most intense regulations being in drought prone areas and states.


  • County Clerk and Recorder
  • State Dept of Natural Resources

Storm Water Management

Construction has the potential to contaminate storm water, surface water, or other waters including, but not limited to “all streams and lakes (including all border waters), wells, springs, irrigation systems, marshes, watercourses, waterways, drainage systems and other bodies of water, surface and underground, natural or artificial, publicly or privately owned.”

Erosion can carry pollutants (asphalt, fertilizer, sealants, oil, gasoline, pesticides, and other toxic or hazardous materials) from the construction site into surface water or groundwater.

Preserving existing vegetation is one of the best ways to prevent soil erosion. Controlling erosion and its associated pollutants at the source is more cost-effective than trying to remove sediment and pollution from storm water runoff.

Best Pollution Prevention Practices

  1. Minimize loss of topsoil during construction.
  2. Minimize the erosion of sediment and pollutants to waterways.
  3. Enable future landscaping to flourish.


  • Minimize exposed soil by reducing graded areas.
  • Save and spread topsoil removed during grading.
  • Fence exposed areas with appropriate silt fencing to intercept eroded soil.
  • Inspect and maintain erosion control facilities after every storm.
  • Grade streets across slopes.
  • Finish grade to slopes of less than 2:1.
  • Terrace cuts and fills by placing concrete, masonry, or environmentally-safe outdoor wood across slopes.
  • Replant exposed areas as soon as practical. Seed grass or place geo-fabric on sites exposed for long periods of time.
  • Maintain trees, shrubs, and perennial grasses on steep slopes, along drainage channels or ditches, and around bodies of water.


Storm Water Erosion Control Plan
Regulations may require you to develop a Storm Water Erosion Control Plan for your site.  The goals of the plan are to minimize the land disturbance during all phases of construction and to prevent sediment from leaving the construction site.  Local regulations will dictate the exact components, however recommended elements include:

  • Narrative site description.
  • Site maps and construction plans.
  • Erosion and sediment controls, including an implementation schedule.
  • Any storm water control regulations required by local authorities
  • Any applicable local government sediment, erosion control, or storm water management requirements.


Best Pollution Prevention Practices

  • Maintain healthy soil by holding moisture for plants, filtering run-off, and slowing run-off velocity and volume.
  • Minimize areas cleared, graded, or excavated.
  • Encourage infiltration and pollutant removal of storm water.


  • Minimize impermeable surfaces that shed rainwater quickly.
  • Use permeable paving materials such as gravel or masonry blocks where practical.
  • Use grassy swales, porous filters made of compost, or managed stream corridors to intercept run-off.
  • Plan detention areas or ponds to hold water, release it slowly, reduce the volume and velocity of run-off, and allow water to percolate.
  • Locate detention ponds to provide natural filtration and cleaning.
  • Use oil-and-sediment-trap catch basins, infiltration trenches/basins, or biofilters in parking areas.
  • Design landscaping so that fallen leaves and debris can remain on the ground to regenerate soil and help maintain its ability to hold moisture.
  • Avoid placing storm drain outlets directly into streams, ponds, or wetlands. Non-degradation laws require some form of treatment for new or increased sources of storm water to state water.



Construction in Natural Waterways

Special permits are required for contractors who dredge, excavate, fill, drain, alter, or conduct construction activities in waters of the state. Regulations and permits cover the following construction activities:

  • Excavation or dredging of material
  • Placement of fill material
  • Alteration of stream banks or a stream course, including installing riprap for erosion protection
  • Ditching and draining
  • In-water construction (driving piles, utility line crossings, etc.)
  • Structures in navigable waters (docks, piers, etc.)

Federal Permits and Laws
Listed below are the necessary permits and applicable laws dealing with wetlands, streams, or other water bodies. Also included are application procedures, fees and processing times, and contacts for more information. Although the number of regulations and permits may seem daunting, the process is fairly straightforward.

Some local jurisdictions require permits or have other requirements for construction in or near waterways. Contact your local planning or building department before proceeding.

  • Section 404 Permit (Federal Clean Water Act)
    • A Section 404 permit is required from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prior to any discharge, excavation, or placement of fill material into “waters of the United States” (this includes rivers, lakes, wetlands, and other water bodies). For information on construction activities that could alter the bed or banks of the waters of the state, contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There are several types of 404 Permits depending on the impact the project will have on water resources.
  • Nationwide Permit
    • Projects with few impacts may qualify for a Nationwide Permit.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must verify that the project complies with Nationwide Permit requirements.  Examples of projects that could fall under the Nationwide Permit include riprap along stream banks, utility line crossings under streams, and road crossings over streams.  The application may be approved within 10 days.  There is no fee for a Nationwide Permit.
  • Regional (General) Permit
    • Similar to Nationwide Permits, Regional Permits cover activities that have been regionally authorized.  The Regional Permits require individual review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The application may be approved within 10 days.  There is no fee for a Regional Permit.
  • Letter of Permission
    • A Letter of Permission is required for minor work on navigable waterways.  The application may be approved within 10 days.  There is no fee for a Letter of Permission.
  • Individual Permit
    • Required of large projects with greater potential impact. As part of its permit evaluation, the Corps of Engineers will look for efforts to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts (in that order).  Mitigation is particularly important in wetlands. The project should result in no net loss of wetland functional values.  The Corps of Engineers will issue a public notice soliciting comments and will factor these comments into its evaluation of the application. The public notice period is 30 days.  As part of its evaluation, the Corps of Engineers will analyze impacts on archeological resources, historic properties, and endangered species.  The process usually takes 60 to 90 days.  The fee is $100 for all applicants.  The cost of supplying additional information required for environmental analysis must be paid by the applicant.



Federal Rivers and Harbors Act – For construction activities on, in, or over any federally-listed navigable waters of the United States.

  • Procedure: Submit applications to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
  • Time: Approval may take 60 to 90 days.
  • Fees: Vary from $10 for private applicants to $100 for commercial.



Discharge of Construction Wash Water

Contractors often wash and rinse buildings, vehicles, tanks, containers, paint brushes, and other equipment at the construction site.  Pollutants from these activities can run off directly or indirectly (via storm drains) into rivers, streams, groundwater, and other water bodies.  Vehicles and equipment are sources of oil, grease, and toxics, particularly when they are not properly maintained.

Options for Water Discharge/Disposal
In the construction industry, the primary pollutant in the wastewater is sediment.   You should not (local regs may mandate the you do not) discharge untreated construction wastewater to surface water or groundwater by either direct discharge or discharge to a storm sewer.   The sediment and other pollutants must first be removed.

If you collect all construction wastewater, you may be able to discharge it to a municipal wastewater treatment plant and avoid the non-degradation requirements. Prior arrangements must be made with the appropriate local municipality. Also, check with your local building sanitation department or wastewater agency to see if you might be able to discharge the wash water to a municipal sanitary sewer system.

Discharge of Treated Wastewater
In some instances the city might not allow you to discharge your wastewater to a wastewater treatment plant; the city might require that you treat the water yourself. A good way to remove the sediment from the water is to construct a pond and let the sediment settle to the bottom. The cleaner water can then be decanted from the pond. Or you may have to install a filter system that will remove the pollutants.

If the water is not contaminated, you may be able to apply the water to land at locations where it will eventually percolate to the groundwater. You can also dig a pit and let the water infiltrate the ground.

Best Pollution Prevention Practices

Stop pollutants from entering storm drains and leaching into groundwater.

  • Do not wash spilled material into storm drains.
  • Wash vehicles off-site. Take them to a “proper location” (e.g., car wash).
  • Change oil and antifreeze off-site and recycle off-site.
  • If dirty construction vehicles are washed on-site, do it in a designated area that has the following characteristics:
    • Well marked as a wash area.
    • No bigger than needed to park and wash the largest vehicle.
    • Posted with a sign that forbids washing with solvents or changing oil, and indicates the nearest oil recycling facility.
    • Paved and drained by a system that leads to an oil/water separator and is connected to the sanitary sewer.
  • Provide temporary gravel base on-site to keep vehicles clean.
  • Biodegradable washing detergents and chemicals are encouraged. Do not use detergents or cleaners containing phosphate. Minimize the quantity of soap, detergents, or other chemicals used.
  • When practical, collect all wash water containing soaps or other cleaning chemicals for reuse or discharge to a sanitary sewer.
  • Maintain and monitor catch basins (big basins designed to infiltrate the water, not just for detention purposes) regularly. Where land is being cleared, protect catch basins by covering the inlet with filter fabric (place fabric under gate).
  • Maintain oil/water separators. Clean them before three inches of oil accumulates in the entry chamber. Do not use soap or other dispersants to clean the separator.
  • Sweep paved outdoor surfaces rather than spraying with water, which may wash pollutants into the drainage system. Pick up and dispose of sweepings in the trash unless they contain hazardous waste. If they contain hazardous waste, the sweepings must be separated and managed appropriately.
  • Educate equipment operators on methods to report and contain spills, such as a ruptured hydraulic line or fuel leak.


Sewage Disposal Services

This section mainly applies to contractors who provide sewage disposal services such as installing, pumping, or disposing of septic system wastes. Some counties require contractors who plan to install, repair, alter, or pump septic tanks and drainfields on a commercial basic obtain a license from their local County Health Department. Different counties have variations in licensing procedures and fees. Therefore, general requirements and procedures for licensing are explained below. For more information or copies of forms, contact your local County Health Department.

Sewage Disposal Systems

Contractors constructing and hooking up subsurface domestic sewage systems, such as septic tanks and drainfields, probably need to be licensed by the local County Health Department in which they are working.  A permit is likely required to install any septic system.  Important issues include:

  • usage of the lot
  • type, size, and placement of the septic system
  • placement of the well
  • may need approved site evaluation

Contact your local County Health Department  for more information.

Generally, you will need to dig two test holes in the location of the proposed disposal system. This allows the sanitarian to ensure that the soil is adequate to absorb and treat domestic wastewater. If the soil is not adequate, other  approved alternatives such as a sand filter system may be available.

To obtain the construction permit from your local County Health Department, you must:

Submit appropriate forms supplied by your County Health Department. Likely information you must provide includes:

  • Legal description of the structure for which the permit is sought
  • Parcel size
  • Description of both existing and proposed structures to be connected to the system
  • Site plan


  • County Health Department


Sewer Hook-Ups

This section applies to contractors who construct drain and sewage lines that are hooked up to municipal sewage systems. Regulations often require contractors to hire licensed plumbers to hook up drain and sewage lines to domestic sewage service laterals or to some other disposal terminal holding human or domestic sewage. Consult your plumber to see if there may also be a hook up fee. Contact your local building or plumbing department for additional information on local requirements.


  • Local Building or Plumbing Department/Agency