Surface Water Quality

Stormwater pollution is the number one source of pollution for streams, rivers and lakes. Seemingly small sources of pollution accumulate into large sources when they all wash away and come together into the storm drainage system and our local streams, rivers and lakes.

Preventing pollution as part of daily living and work is one of the best ways to prevent small sources from adding up into big problems. Preventing pollution is also a lot less expensive than cleaning it up or trying to restore water quality after pollution is already there.

Surface Water Quality Program Overview

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services (CMSWS) protects and improves the surface water quality of more than 3,000 miles of streams and numerous acres of lakes, ponds and wetlands. Unfortunately, many of these surface waters have degraded water quality, habitat and aquatic life largely due to the impacts of historical stormwater management practices and urbanization. The majority of streams in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are designated by the state as “impaired”, meaning that they are not clean enough to support swimming, fishing, or diverse and abundant aquatic life.

CMSWS implements some of the most innovative surface water quality management programs in North Carolina, some of which have been awarded national recognition. All of them are focused on the goal of improving the quality and usability of our surface waters such as streams and lakes. Information about these programs is organized on this surface water quality tab as follows:

  • Monitoring: Monitoring techniques, the quality of local stream and lakes, and swimming and fish advisories.

  • Watershed Improvement: Watershed planning, stream and wetland restoration, mitigation banking, and pollution control programs.

  • Illegal Discharges: Programs that find, respond to, reduce and correct pollution sources for surface waters.

  • Pollution Prevention: Pollution prevention information for residents, businesses, employees, and multi-family housing complexes.

  • Education and Outreach: Resources and outreach programs that educate the community about stormwater and surface water quality.

  • Volunteer: Programs for residents to get involved in preventing stormwater pollution and improving streams and lakes.

Surface Water Improvement and Management Program

Surface water quality is a core concern of all communities within our jurisdiction. In 1998, Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners issued a “Creek Use Policy” requiring drastic improvements to surface water quality throughout the County. This multi-phased program governs our approach to improving water quality and sets the standard for future land-use and development. Watch our video describing Mecklenburg County's Journey to Clean Water.

National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permits

Many of these surface water quality programs are driven by NPDES Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) regulations. The Federal NPDES regulations are part of the 1972 Clean Water Act and are administered by the State of North Carolina.

NPDES MS4 regulations require the following public entities to obtain permits to discharge stormwater: City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, the Towns of Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Matthews, Mint Hill, Pineville, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College. These entities are subject to these regulations because of population numbers and densities. The City of Charlotte is considered a Phase I permittee because it has over 100,000 residents within its jurisdiction. The rest of the above jurisdictions are Phase II permittees because they are within an urbanized area as defined by the U.S. Census. 

Requirements for Phase I and Phase II permittees are slightly different, but each applies for a permit that is issued by the state for a five-year term. This permit requires the permittees to develop a Storm Water Management Plan (SWMP) that outlines how the permittee(s) will implement the following six minimum measures to reduce stormwater pollution:  

  1. Public Education and Outreach
  2. Public Participation and Involvement
  3. Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination 
  4. Construction Site Runoff Control
  5. Post-Construction Runoff Control
  6. Municipal Pollution Prevention and Good Housekeeping

All of the permittees also have permit requirements related to meeting Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). See more information about TMDLs at North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality TMDL program.  

The City also has the following additional permit requirements:  

  • Industrial Facilities Evaluation and Monitoring

  • Water Quality Assessment and Monitoring

For more information about minimum measures and NPDES stormwater regulations visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s webpage Stormwater Discharges from Municipal Sources.

Phase I Permit – City of Charlotte

Questions or comments about the Phase I Permit? 

Craig Miller
City of Charlotte NPDES Program Supervisor

Phase II Permit – Mecklenburg County

Mecklenburg County holds a joint permit with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Central Piedmont Community College and the Towns of Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Matthews, Mint Hill and Pineville. They work together on permit requirements, so compliance activities are cost-effective and consistent across the region. All of these public entities are subject to NPDES MS4 Phase II regulations.

Questions or comments about the Phase II Permit? 

Rusty Rozzelle
Mecklenburg County Water Quality Program Manager

Pollution Prevention

There are two ways pollution prevention is encouraged: Education and Ordinances.


Each year, pollution prevention education is provided to thousands of residents, businesses and municipal employees through presentations, mailings, contests, brochures, and one-on-one interactions. See any of the following for more information and resources about pollution prevention education.


Surface water pollution control ordinances prohibit the discharge of pollutants into the storm drainage system, streams, lakes, or other surface waters. Through the issuance of penalties and other enforcement mechanisms, the intention of these ordinances is to make generating pollution more expensive and burdensome than preventing it.

Violations of pollution ordinances can result in local fines of up to $10,000 per day, per event.

Local Surface Water Quality Pollution Ordinances:

For more information contact:

Ryan Spidel
Mecklenburg County Environmental Supervisor

Andrew DeCristofaro
City of Charlotte Water Quality Specialist

Report Pollution

Call: 311 or 704.336.7600

Online: submit an online form

Mobile Device: download the CLT+ app

(Apple App & Google Play stores)


Illegal Discharges

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services is a joint municipal/county stormwater utility that includes the City of Charlotte, the surrounding towns of Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Matthews, Mint Hill and Pineville and Mecklenburg County.

Illegal discharges are almost any pollutant that enters stormwater and drains into surface waters like streams, ponds and lakes. Illegal discharges are also called Illicit Discharges.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services has an Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination Program that finds, responds to, reduces and corrects pollution sources for surface waters throughout Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

A few common examples of pollution sources include:

  • Muddy water from a construction site 
  • Contaminated stormwater from exposed oily motor parts 
  • Contaminated runoff from washing activities 
  • Water from rinsing paintbrushes over a storm drain
  • Sewage overflows 
  • Oil or antifreeze from leaky automobiles 

The range of what is considered an illicit discharge is too large to provide a comprehensive list. It can be any kind of pollutant on the ground that eventually washes off into stormwater or surface water like streams or lakes. The following activities are NOT considered illicit discharges by federal regulations: runoff from firefighting activities, lawn irrigation, air conditioning condensate, or water that has infiltrated into a basement.

As part of the Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination Program, staff performs the following activities. 


Andrew DeCristofaro
City of Charlotte Water Quality Specialist

Ryan Spidel
Mecklenburg County Environmental Supervisor

Industrial Facilities

Each year, staff conducts inspections at 40 industrial facilities and tests stormwater runoff at facilities. These inspections help staff identify facilities that need assistance complying with state issued permits and local pollution control ordinances.

Industrial facilities can generate significant amounts of polluted stormwater runoff when certain materials and processes are exposed to rain. For example, think of a scrap metal facility that disassembles and stores dirty, oily metal parts outside. Without certain pollution prevention practices in place, rain will wash off oil, grease, sediment, heavy metals and other pollutants into nearby storm drains and eventually a stream.  NC's Department of Environment Quality issues permits to many industrial facilities, requiring them to practice pollution prevention practices to minimize polluted storm water runoff.  Regular inspections and stormwater sampling helps these facilities follow the intention of these permits.