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Splashing Water

Introduction to Water Protection in Massachusetts

The health of our rivers depends on a web of laws and regulations set at the federal, state, and local levels. Mass Rivers and many of our members are actively tracking actions at all levels of government that might affect our rivers.


Federal laws, like the Clean Water Act (CWA), create programs to protect water resources and set minimum quality standards that states must meet.


States design and implement programs to meet or exceed these federal standards; they cannot provide less protection. Many states take responsibility for implementing CWA protection programs themselves, with oversight from the federal government (this is called having ‘primacy’ or having a program ‘delegated’ to the state). Massachusetts is one of only a few states that has chosen not to seek primacy for the CWA, and instead the federal government, in most cases the EPA, implements those programs. However, the state still sets water quality standards and has other responsibilities.


Federal and state governments both consider public involvement an important part of these regulatory programs: there are many opportunities for citizens to review, comment and appeal decisions.


Local governments manage threats to water resources that are very closely related to land use issues, such as wetlands protection and septic system regulation. In these cases, the state and/or federal government provides a framework and minimum standards that guide local governments in creating programs. 


Non-regulatory approaches supplement these regulations. Using guidance documents, design standards, grant programs and policy, the state provides education and incentives as other ways to protect our water. Sometimes these approaches address a regional or site-specific issue. Non-regulatory programs may stimulate new approaches to addressing a particular issue and may encourage activities that reach beyond the minimum required by law.

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water drops with text wetland protection
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