History of Recreational Water Regulations

Regulation of Recreational Water Quality

Disinfected Aquatic Venues: State and Local Government Regulations

In the United States, state and local governments establish and enforce regulations for protecting treated recreational water (for example, pools, spas, and interactive fountains) from naturally occurring and human-made contaminants. No federal regulatory agency has authority over treated recreational water, and no minimum federal design, construction, operation, disinfection, or filtration standards exist, with two exceptions. One exception is the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Actpdf iconexternal icon (15 U.S.C. §§ 8001 et seq.), which aims to prevent drowning due to entrapment of hair, limbs, jewelry, or other items in the suction of a pool or spa drain. The other exception is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which ensures accessibility of aquatic venues for all swimmers. Individual state and local public health agencies develop and enforce swimming pool codes, resulting in substantial variation in regulation, compliance, and enforcement across the country.

Lakes, Rivers, and Oceans: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regulations

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protects natural, untreated recreational beach water quality (for example., lakes, rivers, and oceans) under the Clean Water Act of 1972external icon and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974external icon. The Clean Water Act sets guidelines for regulating the discharge of pollutants to U.S. waters, including recreational water beaches. The Safe Drinking Water Act protects the nation’s drinking water in many ways, including source water protection. Many drinking water sources are also recreational water beaches.

In 1986, EPA developed recommended bacterial water quality criteria for marine and fresh recreational waters 1 to protect beachgoers from diarrheal illness. In 2004, EPA established federal standards for those states and territories that had not yet adopted water quality criteria that met or exceeded the 1986 bacterial water quality criteria 2. Although EPA has authority to set water quality standards, state and local jurisdictions have the discretionary authority for these measures:

  • Adopt their own criteria for a body of water (for example, swimming or boating only)
  • Determine the extent and frequency of water quality monitoring and testing
  • Choose which protective measures should be implemented when water quality indicator limits are exceeded, such as posting signs to alert visitors to water contamination or closing the beach to swimmers