Evaluation and use of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Clean Watersheds Needs Survey data to quantify nutrient loads to surface water, 1978–2012

Scientific Investigations Report 2017-5115




Changes in municipal and industrial point-source discharges over time have been an important factor affecting nutrient trends in many of the Nation’s streams and rivers. This report documents how three U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) national datasets—the Permit Compliance System, the Integrated Compliance Information System, and the Clean Watersheds Needs Survey—were evaluated for use in the U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment project to assess the causes of nutrient trends. This report also describes how a database of total nitrogen load and total phosphorous load was generated for select wastewater treatment facilities in the United States based on information reported in the EPA Clean Watersheds Needs Survey. Nutrient loads were calculated for the years 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 based on average nitrogen and phosphorous concentrations for reported treatment levels and on annual reported flow values.

The EPA Permit Compliance System (PCS) and Integrated Compliance Information System (ICIS), which monitor point-source facility discharges, together are the Nation’s most spatially comprehensive dataset for nutrients released to surface waters. However, datasets for many individual facilities are incomplete, the PCS/ICIS historical data date back only to 1989, and historical data are available for only a limited number of facilities. Additionally, inconsistencies in facility reporting make it difficult to track or identify changes in nutrient discharges over time. Previous efforts made by the U.S. Geological Survey to “fill in” gaps in the PCS/ICIS data were based on statistical methods—missing data were filled in through the use of a statistical model based on the Standard Industrial Classification code, size, and flow class of the facility and on seasonal nutrient discharges of similar facilities. This approach was used to estimate point-source loads for a single point in time; it was not evaluated for use in generating a consistent data series over time.

Another national EPA dataset that is available is the Clean Watersheds Needs Survey (CWNS), conducted every 4 years beginning 1973. The CWNS is an assessment of the capital needs of wastewater facilities to meet the water-quality goals set in the Clean Water Act. Data collected about these facilities include location and contact information for the facilities; population served; flow and treatment level of the facility; estimated capital needs to upgrade, repair, or improve facilities for water quality; and nonpoint-source best management practices.

Total nitrogen and total phosphorous load calculations for each of the CWNS years were based on treatment level information and average annual outflow (in million gallons per day) from each of the facilities that had reported it. Treatment levels categories (such as Primary, Secondary, or Advanced) were substituted with average total nitrogen and total phosphorous concentrations for each treatment level based on those reported in literature. The CWNS dataset, like the PCS/ICIS dataset, has years where facilities did not report either a treatment level or an annual average outflow, or both. To fill in the data gaps, simple linear assumptions were made based on each facility’s responses to the survey in years bracketing the data gap or immediately before or after the data gap if open ended. Treatment level and flow data unique to each facility were used to complete the CWNS dataset for that facility.

Suggested Citation

Ivahnenko, Tamara, 2017, Evaluation and use of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Clean Watersheds Needs Survey data to quantify nutrient loads to surface water, 1978–2012: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2017–5115, 11 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Purpose and Scope
  • Evaluation and Use of the Data
  • Summary
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Evaluation and use of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Clean Watersheds Needs Survey data to quantify nutrient loads to surface water, 1978–2012
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Colorado Water Science Center
Report: iv, 11 p.; Data Release
Online Only (Y/N):