About UNEP
United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Technology, Industry and Economics
top image
space space space
Newsletter and Technical Publications
<International Source Book On Environmentally Sound Technologies
for Wastewater and Stormwater Management>

4.6 Policy and institutional framework (Topic f)


The primary regulatory policy is the protection of public health to reduce human disease. Therefore, higher levels of treatment are generally required with an increasing likelihood of human contact with plant effluent or biosolids. In North America this policy is taken for granted, resulting in concentration on the next priority objective, which is environmental protection.

Reducing the effect of water pollution is mainly accomplished by reducing solids and organic loads to a receiving water, and by ensuring that the discharge is not acutely toxic to aquatic life. Toxicity is most commonly determined at "end-of-pipe" (i.e. without taking into consideration dilution in the immediate vicinity of the discharge). Receiving environments are biological systems with an inherent assimilative capacity for non-toxic organic material. The overall objective is to ensure that the assimilative capacity is not exceeded, and to achieve water quality that allows normal growth of native aquatic organisms, as well as human use.

Water quality standards have been set for receiving bodies of water throughout North America. In sensitive bodies of water such as inland lakes and some estuaries, nutrient removal is an issue to prevent eutrophication (excessive weed and algae growth). In the United States, total watershed management and total daily maximum contaminant loads are being implemented to identify why some bodies of water have not met water quality standards.

Industrial discharges to municipal systems are generally controlled through regulated pre-treatment programs, and punitive Discharge Bylaws, to prevent damage to the collection and treatment system, and to protect the quality of the treatment plant effluent. Charges established by Discharge Bylaws make it more cost effective for certain industries to initiate measures to reduce the contaminant loading to the sewer through source control, best management plans, and the construction and operation of onsite pre-treatment facilities.

In many jurisdictions, certification of wastewater treatment plant operators demonstrating a minimum level of technical expertise is mandatory. This certification is done at the state (US) and provincial (Canada) levels through the Association of Boards of Certification, based in Ames Iowa.

Some jurisdictions, such as the province of British Columbia, are requiring owners of new treatment works to have performance bonds, insurance, or other financial security for the government to access in the event the treatment plant does not meet its effluent discharge requirements. For example, the province of British Columbia, Canada, now requires dischargers to annually contribute to a fund for repairs, and for the eventual replacement of the entire treatment facility at the end of its life expectancy (about 30 years). State and provincial governments often also require municipalities to produce a liquid and solid waste management plan.

Cross border initiatives, such as the Great Lakes Cleanup Project, and phosphorus bans, are in place between Canada and the U.S. to protect common resources.



In Canada, the federal departments which are most concerned with wastewater treatment and the potential impact of discharges into the environment are Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The Fisheries Act in Canada is very powerful due to the general nature of its requirement that all effluent discharged into fish-bearing waters must not contain any deleterious materials. Environment Canada provides technical assistance to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and produces environmental standards for federal facilities such as airports, penitentiaries and First Nations reserves. Legislation which is the responsibility of Environment Canada is general in nature when applied to wastewater treatment.

Specific discharge requirements are set by provincial legislation. Each province has a provincial Ministry of the Environment, and each Territory has a Water Resource Division. These government agencies are responsible for producing environmental discharge and monitoring standards and guidelines, and for regulating and enforcing discharges. Permits are issued for each wastewater discharge. In some jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, Canada, permits will not be required in the future - rather, a minimum criteria set by regulation will have to be met.

Each province/territory also has a Ministry of Health, which regulates and monitors smaller effluent flows which are discharged into ground disposal systems. In general, individual household on-site treatment and disposal systems, and small cluster systems with flows under about 22 cubic metres per day, fall within Ministry of Health jurisdiction.

Larger service providers are mainly local municipalities and regional districts, who arrange for construction and operation of wastewater treatment plants using public funds. There are also private operations such as trailer parks, and small local treatment works for new developments. A relatively recent trend is to have operations of public treatment facilities contracted out to a private wastewater operations company. As well, some suppliers of individual package plants offer system servicing.

United States

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees most aspects of wastewater treatment, setting minimum specific standards which must be met throughout the country for all types of discharges, and implementing the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the Clean Water Act. The EPA oversees the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which issues permits that are required to discharge treated wastewater to US waters. The NPDES is administered by local branches of the EPA, except where the EPA has delegated the permitting process to some individual states for management and control. State regulatory bodies may also set more stringent effluent criteria which must be met locally. For disinfection, individual states develop criteria based upon the use and quality of the receiving water body.

There are some multi-state regulatory agencies for river management still in effect which predate the EPA; for example Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), formed to protect the Ohio River [http://www/].

In most states, the State Department of Health is responsible for regulation of on-site systems, which discharge to ground.

Service providers are mainly local municipalities, counties, and regional governments, who arrange for construction and operation of wastewater treatment plants using public funds. Lately, there has been a trend for private operations companies to offer to operate public facilities, for a savings to the administrative body. There are also private operations for small local treatment works for individual developments, trailer parks and resorts. Operation of the latter may also be contracted out to a wastewater operations company.

An interesting recent development is that private power and gas utilities in the US and Canada are becoming interested in owning and operating wastewater treatment facilities. The US based Energy and Power Research Institute is currently carrying out two initiatives in this area. The first is coordinating a US $5 million study into a number of issues surrounding decentralized (cluster) wastewater treatment systems, and the second is carrying out business plans on behalf of two member utilities for the private operation of wastewater treatment facilities in the US.

Some states are also moving towards central servicing requirements for individual treatment systems, with the objective of improving performance. Some states have implemented environmental reporting to the EPA via the Internet, as a cost and time saving measure, and to also make data more accessible to the public.

      Main Menu


  • Brochure
  • IETC Brochure

  • International Year of Forests
  • International Year of Forests

  • World Environment Day
  • ??????

  • UNEP Campaign
  • UNite to Combat Climate Change