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What is the Clean Water Act?

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  • Written By: Caitlin Kenney
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2016
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The Clean Water Act (CWA), formally known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of1972, is the United States’ major piece of legislation concerning surface water pollution. The act is aimed at managing surface water pollution, eliminating further pollution, protecting aquatic wildlife, and attaining and maintaining water quality standards for water recreation. It hoped to stem further pollution by 1985 and raise quality standards to meet sport recreation requirements by 1983. The Clean Water Act originally focused on point source pollution, but its evolving programs have come to include non-point source pollution as well.

Generally, the Clean Water Act refers to three major bodies of legislation, the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, Clean Water Act of 1977, and the Water Quality Act of 1987. The 1972 law advanced previous legislation and expanded the scope of protection of surface water. Previously, legislation had only reached what was covered under the ambiguously narrow “navigable waters,” but the 1972 amendments extended that to all waters within the United States and territorial seas. Congress interpreted this broadly, also allowing streams, wetlands, and other waters that might be deemed non-navigable to be protected by the act.

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Both the 1972 law and the Clean Water Act of 1977 dealt primarily with point source pollution, or pollution in which a direct source can be found, such as from an industrial pipe, feedlot, or government facility effluent discharge. Before 1972, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had authorized many states to set up water quality standards (WQS), but had no effective way of enforcing them. The Clean Water Act set up a permitting program called National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), to more effectively monitor and regulate point sources, which was to be managed by the EPA in concert with state agencies. The EPA, under section 309, has authority to enforce these standards. A violator with a charge of criminal negligence or endangerment may face high fines or imprisonment. States with the NPDES program must also be capable of enforcing permit requirements under the state law.

Non-point source, in contrast, refers to pollution that does not enter water system at an exact point, for example from urban or agricultural run-off and ground infiltration. Stormwater discharges, though they may have an exact point of entry, were also included in this category. Non-point sources were originally exempt by Congress from the Clean Water Act’s programs, research and increasing awareness showing the seriousness of these sources led to the Water Quality Act of 1987 (1987 WQA). This act required that industrial and municipal stormwater systems be separate from sewer systems and that they obtain an NPDES permit. Though agricultural pollution was still exempt, the 1987 WQA set up a fast-growing grant program for research and development which provides technology, training, and technical assistance to support the control of non-point pollution.

The Clean Water Act set up two sets of standards, a federal technology-based standard, which is a minimum requirement for municipal and industrial sources regardless of site, and site specific water quality standards set up by the states to ensure protection for particularly vulnerable bodies of water. Antidegradation policies protect clean water from pollution. For waters that consistently fail to meet WQS are outfitted with a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), wherein the sources of pollution are researched and a plan for bringing the body of water into compliance is put into action.

Title II of the 1972 law issued grants to municipalities for the construction of wastewater treatment facilities, or Publicly-Owned Treatment Works (POTW). The 1987 WQA replaced this with the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), which supplemented states’ revolving funds with federal money aimed at clean water protection, wastewater treatment, and non-point source pollution management. The funds give low interest loans to their respective states for implementing these programs.

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