Handbook of Florida Water Regulation: Federal Groundwater Discharge Regulations1

Michael T. Olexa, Tatiana Borisova, and Jarrett Davis 2


This handbook is designed to provide an accurate, current, and authoritative summary of the principal federal and state (Florida) laws that directly or indirectly relate to agriculture. This handbook provides a basic overview of the many rights and responsibilities that farmers and farmland owners have under both federal and state laws as well as the appropriate contact information to obtain more detailed information. However, the reader should be aware that because the laws, administrative rulings, and court decisions on which this handbook is based are subject to constant revision, portions of this publication could become outdated at any time. Several details of cited laws are also left out due to space limitations.

This handbook is distributed with the understanding that the authors are not engaged in rendering legal or other professional advice, and the information contained herein should not be regarded as a substitute for professional advice. This handbook is not all inclusive in providing information to achieve compliance with the federal and state laws and regulations governing water protection. For these reasons, the use of these materials by any person constitutes an agreement to hold harmless the authors, the UF/IFAS Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Law, and UF/IFAS Extension for any liability claims, damages, or expenses that may be incurred by any person as a result of reference to or reliance on the information contained in this handbook.

How does the federal government regulate groundwater discharge?

Federal regulation of groundwater consists of a variety of statutory directives (administered by a host of administrative agencies) that affects or has the potential to affect groundwater. Below, we review, the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.

What is the Clean Water Act?

The most important federal legislation affecting groundwater (as well as surface water) is the Clean Water Act (CWA; passed in 1972). The chief purpose of the CWA is the control of pollution loading to surface water. Groundwater is directly implicated due to the natural linkage of groundwater and surface water resources. When a party pollutes the surface water, the hydrologic water cycle makes it more likely than not that groundwater is simultaneously being contaminated. For more information on the CWA, see Florida Water Regulations Handbook publication FE582.

What is the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)?

The NPDES places limitations on point sources (a recognizable origin of pollution such as a pipe, well, or leaking container) of water pollution. According to the CWA, discharge to waters of United States through a point source is prohibited unless the operator of the point source has an NPDES permit. The permit includes limits on discharge, monitoring and reporting requirements, and other provisions.

NPDES permits impose two types of limitations on point-source polluters:

  1. Technology-Based Effluent Limitations. Limits placed on the contents of the effluent based on the best practicable treatment technology available to control pollutants.

  2. Water-Quality-Based Effluent Limitations. These limits depend on the standards established for the quality of the water body (including groundwater bodies) into which the discharge takes place (cases are viewed on a case-by-case basis).

What is the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)?

The federal SDWA was passed in 1974, and it has been amended several times to expand both its breadth and the United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) power to enforce it. The SDWA's primary purpose, which is to stop contaminants from entering drinking water systems, is accomplished by doing the following:

  • Establishing quality standards for drinking water;

  • Monitoring public water systems; and

  • Guarding against groundwater contamination from injection wells.

The SDWA aims to eliminate the pollution in drinking water by protecting water quality from the source to the tap. Threats to drinking water such as animal wastes, pesticides, and wrongfully disposed chemicals could contaminate water at its source. The SDWA provides provisions for operator training and funding for water system improvements to ensure that water containing any threats is properly treated or disinfected.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) establishes primary and secondary drinking water quality standards for larger types of public water systems that serve at least 15 service connections, or serve 25 or more people 60 days or more out of the year. The SDWA also contains provisions for the notification of the public when water quality maximum contaminant levels are exceeded by public water systems and further mandates enforcement action when drinking water is not treated properly, exceeds water quality standards, or imposes any undue risk to the public's health.

For more information on the SDWA see the EPA website: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-04/documents/epa816f04030.pdf

Also, for a better understanding of the SDWA, see Florida Water Regulations Handbook publication FE587.


Federal Water Pollution Control Act ("Clean Water Act"), 33 USCA, Section 1251 to 1387

Safe Drinking Water Act, 42 USCA, Section 300f


The authors are indebted to the personnel of both state and federal agencies who provided their time and advice in the preparation of this handbook. We acknowledge Carol Fountain and Susan Gildersleeve at the University of Florida for their assistance in editing this handbook. We also acknowledge funding received for updating this publication from the 2016 Wells Fargo Extension Professional Award and Program Enhancement Grant (Principal Investigator is Tatiana Borisova).


1. This document is FE602, one of a series of the Food and Resource Economics Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date October 1998. Revised June 2017. Visit the EDIS website at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.
2. Michael T. Olexa, professor, Food and Resource Economics Department, and director, UF/IFAS Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Law; Tatiana Borisova, associate professor, Food and Resource Economics Department; and Jarrett Davis, student, Levin College of Law; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

Publication #FE602

Date: 2018-02-27
Borisova, Tatiana

Related Topics

Fact Sheet


  • Michael Olexa