Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Water Security: U.S. EPA. Clean Water Act. History.

History of the Clean Water Act

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was the first major U.S. law to address water pollution. Growing public awareness and concern for controlling water pollution led to sweeping amendments in 1972. As amended in 1972, the law became commonly known as the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The 1972 amendments:

  • Established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States.
  • Gave EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry.
  • Maintained existing requirements to set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters.
  • Made it unlawful for any person to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained under its provisions.
  • Funded the construction of sewage treatment plants under the construction grants program.
  • Recognized the need for planning to address the critical problems posed by nonpoint source pollution.

Subsequent amendments modified some of the earlier CWA provisions. Revisions in 1981 streamlined the municipal construction grants process, improving the capabilities of treatment plants built under the program. Changes in 1987 phased out the construction grants program, replacing it with the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund, more commonly known as the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. This new funding strategy addressed water quality needs by building on EPA-state partnerships.

Over the years, many other laws have changed parts of the Clean Water Act. Title I of the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act of 1990, for example, put into place parts of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978, signed by the U.S. and Canada, where the two nations agreed to reduce certain toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes. That law required EPA to establish water quality criteria for the Great Lakes addressing 29 toxic pollutants with maximum levels that are safe for humans, wildlife, and aquatic life. It also required EPA to help the States implement the criteria on a specific schedule.

The  Clean Water Act  has been the foundation for prioritizing water restoration and recovery across the country. Fifty years ago, rivers were ablaze, and wildlife abandoned their polluted ecosystems. Thanks to the progress we have made, waters that were once polluted are now boatable, fishable, and even swimmable.  

Clean water and a growing economy go hand-in-hand. We all need water. From our local coffee shop to microprocessor manufacturers to the beach or lake town shops to your local hockey rink. For these and other industries, clean water means both fishing with your grandkids at the lake and job-creation. The Clean Water Act has made our water and our lives safer and more prosperous.

History of the Clean Water Act

The  Clean Water Act  (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of   pollutants  into the waters of the United States and requires water quality standards for surface waters.

The CWA made it unlawful to discharge any pollutants from a  point source  into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained. The EPA's  National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System  (NPDES) permit program contains limits on what a facility can discharge, monitoring and reporting requirements, and other provisions to ensure that the discharge does not hurt water quality and, therefore, aquatic life or human health. From the start, EPA science and innovation has supported the implementation of the Clean Water Act through  research achievements .

Before the Clean Water Act

Prior to the Clean Water Act, there were a number of laws that attempted to protect water quality, such as the Rivers and Harbors Act (1899), the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1948), the Water Quality Act (1965), and the Refuse Act (1970).

June 1969

Oil slick catches fire on the polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio, mobilizing public concern across the nation.

January 1970

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is established.

October 18, 1972 - Clean Water Act Signed Into Law

The CWA aimed to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. It established  NPDES  permitting program for discharges to navigable waters, required states to establish water quality standards for their waterbodies, required municipal facilities to meet secondary treatment standards, required industrial facilities to meet technology standards, and announced a national goal of eliminating discharges of pollutants to navigable waters by 1985.


The  1977 CWA amendments  reduced toxic pollutants being discharged into waterways through a series of  technology-based standards  and a deadline for industrial sources to comply.


 Revisions in 1981  streamlined the  municipal construction grants  process, including prioritizing projects that will contribute the most to improve water quality.


The  Water Quality Act  replaced the construction grants program with the  Clean Water State Revolving Fund , addressing water quality through EPA-state partnerships. The 1987 Amendments also provided a framework for permitting stormwater discharges, including municipal separate storm sewer systems, and addressed toxics in sewer sludge.


Title I of the   Great Lakes Critical Programs Act   put into place parts of the  Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement  of 1978, signed by the U.S. and Canada, where the two nations agreed to reduce certain toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes.


The  Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Control Policy  establishes a national approach under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program for controlling discharges into the nation’s waters from combined sewer systems.


The  Wet Weather Water Quality Act  amended the Clean Water Act to require that each permit related to CSOs provide for plans that would dramatically reduce CSO discharges and meet stringent federal and state water quality standards.


 The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act  reduces the risk of disease to users of the Nation's coastal recreation waters. It also established a grant program to support testing and monitoring of coastal waters and support public notification programs for when the water is not safe for recreation.


For the first time, Congress provides funding for the  National Aquatic Resource Survey  program, an EPA, state and tribal partnership to monitor the nation’s rivers and streams, lakes, wetlands and coastal environments.

November 2021

 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law  invests more than $50 billion through EPA’s established water financing programs – including over $14 billion for programs under the Clean Water Act.

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