Does Self Monitoring Work? A Review of Procedures in California

Dec. 28, 2000
undefinedSince the inception of waste discharge regulations in California (both by the Regional Water Quality Control Boards and the U.S. EPA), the self monitoring of waste streams has been a standard practice. Compliance with effluent standards has been mainly, if not solely, determined by enforcement agencies through the review of the reports submitted by the dischargers. Occasionally, staffs of the state agencies collect samples of various discharge streams to verify the validity of monitoring reports provided by the dischargers to the state.

According to the Water Code, Regional Boards may require the submittal of monitoring reports as necessary. The burden, including costs, of these reports shall bear a reasonable relationship to the need for the report and the benefits obtained from the report.

There is a provision in the water code that specifies reports of confidential nature be treated differently. When these reports are requested by the person furnishing a report, the portions of a report that might disclose proprietary processes shall not be made available for inspection by the public, but shall be made available to governmental agencies for use in making studies. However, these portions of a report are available for use by the State or any state agency in the judicial review for enforcement practices.

Waste Discharge Permits in California

There are two types of waste discharge permits that govern the discharge of waste in California. These permits are the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System and the Waste Discharge Requirements.

National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES): NPDES permits are issued to regulate discharges of waste to navigable waters of the nation, including discharges of storm water from urban separate storm water systems and certain categories of industrial activity. "Waters of the nation" encompass surface waters such as rivers, lakes, bays, estuaries, oceans, etc. The permits are authorized by Section 402 of the federal Clean Water Act and Section 13370 of the California Water Code. The permit content and the issuance process are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations.

NPDES permits are required to dictate conditions of discharge that will ensure protection of beneficial uses of the receiving water as in regional water quality control plans adopted by the State Water Board. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the state's program to regulate discharges of waste water to "waters of the nation." The State, through the Regional Water Boards, issues the NPDES permits, reviews discharger self-monitoring reports, performs independent compliance checking and takes enforcement actions as needed.

Waste Discharge Requirements (WDRs): The California Water Code authorizes Regional Water Boards to regulate discharges of waste to land to protect water quality. Water Boards issue WDRs in accordance with Section 13263 of the California Water Code. Regional Boards issue WDRs, review self-monitoring reports submitted by the discharger, perform independent compliance checking, and take the necessary enforcement action.

Self Monitoring Program

Both the WDRs and the NPDES permits contain extensive discharge specifications, prohibitions, effluent standards, mass loadings, receiving water standards, general provisions and the "Self Monitoring and Reporting Program." This program is truly the cornerstone of both the WDRs and the NPDES program. In California, monitoring of discharges and receiving waters is carried out by the permittee. The ideal situation would be where the regulatory agency and/or an independent laboratory collected and analyzed samples from the permittee's waste stream. However, since this process is not logically or financially possible, the burden falls on the permittee. Potential problems resulting from a self-monitoring system include improper sample collection, poor analytical technique, falsification of records and other abuses of the system.

The regulatory agency has several tools available to prevent or minimize these problems. Facility inspections are routinely performed by regulatory agency personnel and should consist of a thorough inspection of the treatment facility. This visual observation should allow the inspector to determine whether the facility is capable of producing an effluent that will meet its permit limits. The facility inspection should also include an inspection of the laboratory facilities, including a review of the laboratory and sampling techniques used and the appropriate supporting records. Additionally, the regulatory agency also conducts compliance monitoring consisting of periodic sampling of a permittee discharge. If the compliance monitoring results differ significantly from those reported by the permittee, then the reason for the discrepancy should be discovered and corrected.

Types of Monitoring Reports

Both the WDRs and the NPDES permits require a plethora of monitoring reports (including daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, semi-annually and yearly information on various parameters that are expected to be found in the discharge streams). In addition, the permittee is required to sample receiving waters for back groundwater quality as well as source water supply quality. In many cases, the permittee is required to perform toxicity bioassays to characterize the toxicity potential of the discharge. These monitoring reports are submitted both to the State and U.S. EPA for NPDES discharges.

Considerations For Selecting Monitoring Requirements

An integral part of the monitoring conditions for a particular facility is the monitoring points. The point at which a sample is collected can have a dramatic effect on the monitoring results for that facility. For example, a facility may have several waste streams from different plant processes. The waste stream from a particular process may contain extremely high amounts of a particular pollutant, that may reflect poor housekeeping, inadequate treatment facilities or other problems. However, when this stream is diluted with other waste streams from other parts of the plant, the resulting constituent concentrations may be below detectable levels. Thus, it may be necessary to require internal monitoring points in order to detect these problem areas.

Ultimately, the permittee is responsible for providing a safe and accessible sampling point that is representative of the discharge. The state permit writer is responsible for determining the most appropriate monitoring location and explicitly specifying this in the permit.

Monitoring Frequency

Some factors that need to be considered when determining monitoring frequency include
  • Frequency of discharge
  • Design capacity of treatment facility
  • Type of treatment method used
  • Significance of pollutants with regard to post-compliance record/history
  • Cost of monitoring relative to discharger's capabilities.

The monitoring frequency is normally based on the design capacity of the treatment facility and complexity of the discharge. If the cost of monitoring is significant in considering the capability of the discharger, the frequency of some or all of the parameters can be decreased.

Types of Sampling

In addition to establishing monitoring frequencies, the permit writer will need to determine the type of sample required. There are two types of samples: grabs and composite. Where the quality and flow of the waste stream being sampled is not likely to change over time, a grab sample is appropriate and specified in the permit. When the material being sampled varies significantly over time either as a result of flow or quality changes, a composite sample is desirable.


As these reports are received by the Regional Water Quality Control Board staff, they are generally logged to show when they were received versus when they were due. Staff checks compliance with permit specified effluent limitations, conditions, types of samples required and frequency of samples specified in the permit. This information is then entered into a computer tracking system.

If the nature of a violation is significant, an enforcement procedure is implemented. First, a staff member will contact the discharger to find out the cause of the violations. If a satisfactory explanation is obtained, a note of the confirmation is put in the file. However, if the nature of violation is significant, a formal letter of violation is sent to the discharger confirming violations noted and the discharger is requested to submit information on actions that have been implemented to bring the discharge into compliance or actions that are proposed along with the time schedule to bring the discharge into compliance as soon as possible. Both the U.S. EPA and the State have guidance for their staff to determine if violations are significant and what level of enforcement is appropriate to address these violations. The enforcement process is based on incremental escalation of enforcement (i.e., from a phone call to a formal enforcement hearing before the Regional Board). A discharger can be issued a Cease and Desist action by the Regional Board in accordance with the due process as outlined in the California Water Code and the Federal Regulations.

Is Self Monitoring Working?

In general, the self monitoring system used to monitor waste discharge systems in California is working. Dischargers sample their discharge streams in accordance with their permit terms and conditions and follow a chain of custody procedures for transporting samples to state certified laboratories for analyses. The laboratory results are tabulated by the discharger and/or its consultants and sent to the State and to U.S. EPA where appropriate. In some cases, dischargers forget to sample for the parameters outlined in their waste discharge requirements and monitoring reports are submitted. Staff of the regulatory agencies (at least once a month) review non-submittal of these reports and tag those dischargers that are delinquent in the submittal of their reports. A follow up letter is sent to these dischargers to remind them that the required monitoring reports need to be submitted in a timely manner. Constant violators are prioritized for enforcement action as appropriate.

There have been a few instances of falsification of monitoring reports in the State and these types of cases are considered to be very serious and companies and/or persons involved are dealt severely to the maximum extent allowed by law. Such exemplary enforcement actions are deterrent enough to protect the integrity of the self monitoring system.

About the Author:

Hisam A. Baqai is the managing engineer with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, Lahontan Region, Victorville Branch Office.

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