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  • SWIM

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Water Quality Standards (and then some)

Updated: Jun 10, 2023

Picture this: It’s a hot summer’s day, you’re at the beach, hot from the sun and the warm sand, and you decide to go take a dip in the cool, refreshing water lapping at the shore. The last thing on your mind is, “Now, is this a Class SD or a Class I?” The truth, though, is this distinction is actually quite important, and if you use the water anywhere in and around New York, now is the time to make your voice heard.

Calls to Action!

  • Let the State know how much and where you use the water. Fill out all your favorite recreation spots on this interactive mapper

  • Complete the Riverkeeper’s Action Alert and share with your networks

  • Attend the in-person DEC hearing on Tuesday, June 13th at 2:00 p.m.

NYS DEC - Region 2 Office 8th Floor Conference Room 834 47-40 21st Street Long Island City, NY 11101

  • Register for and attend the virtual DEC hearing on Thursday, June 15th at 2:00 p.m.

  • Send in a comment letter by 11:59 p.m. on June 20th.


Currently the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the State agency tasked by the EPA’s Clean Water Act to protect our waterways, is changing the rules about where the water will continue to be clean enough to swim and where that protection is under threat. Before discussing what is changing, it helps to understand the meaning behind some of the terms.

Within the regulations, primary recreation is typically considered swimming and bathing and is the most protected recreational level because of full-body immersion during the activity. Secondary recreation, like boating, is considered to have less direct contact with the water and is therefore less protected in terms of water quality standards. Obviously not all boating activities are the same, since you have a greater chance of coming into direct contact with the water in a kayak, through paddling, splashing, or capsizing, than in a motor boat.

The DEC uses letters to designate different water quality standards. This map (below) shows the various saline waterbody designations in the region. If you’re not sure of the letter of your local waterbody, this table or interactive map will help you find it.

As you can see, most of the water in and around the City on this map is red, which means it is Class I. In these new proposed changes, Class I would support secondary recreation, meaning water quality standards would not be safe enough for people to swim in any of those areas, even if it is known that swimming is happening. The other area to note is the Class SD waters, which are colored mustard on this map. These areas, which include the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek, will not be protected for any recreation, including boating, even though groups are actively trying to promote and are engaging in on-water recreation to build local stewardship. If these changes go through, the City will not be required to make improvements to these waterways beyond what is required by the class designation, consigning these waterbodies from ever becoming “fishable, swimmable.”

How We Got Here

How is it possible that the DEC is able to propose these changes, since they clearly don’t align with the goals of the Clean Water Act that all waters should be fishable/swimmable, you ask? Great question! And here’s where things get a little trickier and a lot wonkier. Essentially the EPA has a built-in contingency clause, called the Use Attainability Analysis, which is more often referred to as a UAA. The EPA defines a UAA as a “structured scientific assessment of the physical, chemical, biological and economic factors affecting the attainment of the use.” There are some guardrails on this, so the EPA stipulates that “wherever attainable, water quality provides for protection and propagation of fish, shellfish and wildlife, and recreation in and on the water” and requires the State to “adopt the highest attainable use.”

The other major change is the addition of a Wet Weather limited-use designation for areas that have combined sewer overflow (CSO) discharges and a Combined Sewer Overflow Long-term Control Plans (LTCPs), allowing them to have wet-weather exceedances. At this time, this designation hasn't been applied to any waterbody yet, but it is also unclear how it will actually work. We are requesting more information on a minimum rainfall trigger, limits to exemption duration, and the public input process. We encourage all individuals and groups whose waterbodies have a LTCP (either approved or in process) to press the DEC for more details about this wet-weather designation process and potential impacts. You can look up if your waterbody has an LTCP here.

Public Comments

The SWIM Coalition, Riverkeeper, Save the Sound, and others will be writing comment letters and we encourage you to do the same! Please reach out if you would like help with your letter. If you’re not sure what exactly is happening in your waterbody, check out the recordings from our recent presentations on water quality and the DEC proposal, or use Riverkeeper’s excellent interpretation tool to find out what is changing (or not) and what it means.

Make sure you let the DEC know that you want our waterways to be held to the highest standards for recreational use.

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