Clean Water Act

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The Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed by Congress in 1972 and was a reorganization of the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act. Under the CWA the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created wastewater standards and administered the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which made it illegal for anyone to discharge a pollutant into navigable waters without a permit from the EPA.[1]


What is now commonly known as the Clean Water Act is a series of amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. It was the first major federal law on water pollution. The 1948 originally authorized the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service to prepare programs eliminating pollution from interstate waters and improving the sanitary conditions of underground water sources. The 1948 law also authorized assistance to states, municipalities and other government agencies for the creation of water treatment plants.[2]


The 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act was significantly amended in 1972 to become the current Clean Water Act. According to the EPA the Clean Water Act is designed to fulfill the following requirements:[3]

  • Establish a structure for regulating pollutants discharged into the waters of the United States.
  • Grant the EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs like wastewater standards for industry.
  • Grant the EPA and states the authority to set requirements for water quality standards, including all contaminants in surface waters.
  • Make it unlawful for any person or entity to discharge any pollutant from a point source, like a factory, into navigable waters without a permit.
  • Fund the construction of sewage treatment plants.
  • Allow for the regulation of what is called "nonpoint source pollution," which is a kind of pollution that often involves non-man-made forms of pollution such as land runoffs and precipitation.[4]

Legislative history

The original CWA was not the first piece of federal legislation to address the issue of water regulation and pollution. The first major law, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, was passed in 1948. The act gave authority to the Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service, in conjunction with other federal, state and local authorities, to design programs that regulated interstate waters and improved sanitary conditions around surface waters and in underground water sources. The law also provided for several improvements in public water supplies, agricultural sources and industrial sources. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act was amended significantly by Congress in 1972. These amendments would become known as the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972. The 1972 law gave new regulatory authority to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create water pollution standards and implement programs for the regulation of private industries that discharge these pollutants. The CWA also provided federal funds to states and municipalities for the construction of water quality and waste treatment facilities.[5][6]

The table below summarizes key congressional actions related to water pollution control (major acts and amendments are bolded.

DocumentIcon.jpg See bill: Clean Water Act
Clean Water Act and amendments, 1948-1987
Year Act Citation
1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act P.L. 845
1956 Water Pollution Control Act of 1956 P.L. 84-660
1961 Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1961 P.L. 87-88
1965 Water Quality Act of 1965 P.L. 89-234
1966 Clean Water Restoration Act P.L. 89-753
1970 Water Quality Improvement Act P.L. 89-753
1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments
(Clean Water Act)
P.L. 86-353
1977 Clean Water Act Amendments P.L. 95-217
1981 Municipal Wastewater Treatment Construction Grants Amendments P.L. 97-117
1987 Water Quality Act P.L. 100-4
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "Digest of Federal Resource Laws of Interest to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Federal Water Pollution Control Act)," accessed September 23, 2014

Key features

Water quality standards

Water quality standards usually refer to the overall quality of water bodies nationwide. The act requires each state to establish water quality standards for all bodies of water within state boundaries. The act requires that industrial facilities like steel and iron manufacturers, chemical plants and other sources of pollutants to install what are called "best practicable control technology" (BPT) standards. These standards required industries to install technologies that would prevent the discharge of more conventional pollutants like solids and bacteria.[7]

Municipal construction grants

The original 1972 Clean Water Act gave federal funds to municipalities to construct sewage treatment plans. These construction grants, commonly called Title II construction grants, were given so that municipalities complied with the act's pollution control requirements for municipal water. In 1990 these construction grants were transferred to what is now known as the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). The CWSRF program transfers federal funds to state governments, which in turn provide grants or loans to local governments for wastewater treatment and other pollution control programs and facilities. States contribute funds to match the amount of federal aid provided.[7][8][9]

National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System

Under the CWA it is unlawful to release any pollutant from any source into navigable waters without a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The program applies to "navigable waters," which are waters used for commerce or the transportation of people, and regulates the discharge of pollutants into these waters by industrial or municipal facilities. These permits require monitoring reports from an industry or municipality that track pollutants in order to ensure compliance.[10]

See also

External links