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Water: Clean Water Act 40th Anniversary

The Clean Water Act:  Protecting and Restoring our Nation’s Waters

Forty years ago, in the midst of a national concern about untreated sewage, industrial and toxic discharges, destruction of wetlands, and contaminated runoff, the principal law to protect the nation’s waters was passed. Originally enacted in 1948 to control water pollution primarily based on state and local efforts, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, or Clean Water Act (CWA), was totally revised in 1972 to give the Act its current shape. The CWA set a new national goal “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters”, with interim goals that all waters be fishable and swimmable where possible. The Act embodied a new federal-state partnership, where federal guidelines, objectives and limits were to be set under the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while states, territories and authorized tribes would largely administer and enforce the CWA programs, with significant federal technical and financial assistance. The Act also gave citizens a strong role to play in protecting and restoring waters.

The CWA specifies that all discharges into the nation’s waters are unlawful unless authorized by a permit and sets baseline, across-the-board technology-based controls for municipalities and industry. It requires all dischargers to meet additional, stricter pollutant controls where needed to meet water quality targets and requires federal approval of these standards. It also protects wetlands by requiring “dredge and fill” permits. The CWA authorizes federal financial assistance to states and municipalities to help achieve these national water goals. The Act has robust enforcement provisions and gives citizens a strong role to play in watershed protection. Congress has revised the Act, most notably in 1987, where it established a comprehensive program for controlling toxic pollutants and stormwater discharges, directed states to develop and implement voluntary nonpoint pollution management programs, and encouraged states to pursue groundwater protection. Notwithstanding these improvements, the 1972 statute, its regulatory provisions and the institutions that were created 40 years ago, still make up the bulk of the framework for protecting and restoring the nation’s rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands and coastal waters. (Link opens in a pop-up window.)

Read the full text of the Clean Water Act (PDF) (190 pp, 1MB, About PDF)

Core Programs to Protect and Restore the Nation's Waters

Establishing the Standards to Measure Success

Water quality standards are the regulatory and scientific foundation of the CWA's water protection programs. Under the Act, states and authorized tribes establish water quality targets that define the goals and limits for waters within their jurisdictions. These standards are then used to determine which waters must be cleaned up, how much pollution can be discharged, and what is needed for protection. To help achieve these targets, EPA reviews and approves state and tribal standards; develops replacement standards where needed, and provides technical and scientific support for development of standards.

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Identifying Polluted Waters and Developing Plans to Restore Them

Every two years states are required to assess the condition of surface waters and submit lists of those that are too polluted to meet water quality standards (called impaired waters). The Act requires that states establish priorities to address these impaired waters by developing water restoration plans (also known as Total Maximum Daily Loads or TMDLs). TMDLs identify pollutant load limits necessary to clean up the water to meet water quality standards and then quantify a pollutant "budget" for different sources of pollutants. This water restoration plan is then implemented via permit requirements and through a variety of other local, state or federal water protection programs.

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Permitting Discharges of Pollutants from Point Sources

The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) is one of the key regulatory tools available in the CWA to protect and restore the nation's waters. The law requires that any point source facility that discharges polluted wastewater into a body of water must first obtain a permit from the EPA or their designated representative (46 States and 1 Territory are delegated). Permits are issued once the operator of the facility shows that they are using the best available technology to reduce pollutants from their discharges. In addition, water quality standards have been established under the CWA as targets for individual bodies of water. These may also be used to require additional mitigation measures before issuing a permit if water quality targets have not been met. NPDES permitted sources include municipal and industrial wastewater, wet weather discharges including stormwater sources, combined sewer and sanitary sewer overflows, and large concentrated animal feeding operations.

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Addressing diffuse, nonpoint sources of pollution

Prior to 1987, CWA programs were primarily directed at point source pollution. CWA Section 319 changed that by creating a new federal program that provides money to states, tribes, and territories for the development of programs to reduce pollution from unregulated, diffuse sources, such as agriculture. EPA grants are used to identify waters impaired by nonpoint sources, help stakeholders implement best management practices to reduce runoff, and monitor and evaluate progress to restore waters.

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Protecting Wetlands

The CWA regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the U.S., including wetlands. Activities regulated include fill for development, water resource projects (such as dams and levees), infrastructure development (such as highways and airports) and mining projects. The Act requires the issuance of a permit before dredged or fill material may be discharged into waters of the U.S., unless the activity is exempt (e.g., certain farming and forestry activities).

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Protecting Coastal Waters through the National Estuary Program

The National Estuary Program (NEP) is a unique community-based program designed to restore and maintain the water quality and ecological integrity of 28 estuaries of national significance. The NEP uses an effective watershed-based ecosystem planning approach to connect upstream pollution sources with downstream impacts. The program operates through partnerships among federal, state and local agencies; nonprofit organizations; industry; academia; environmental and business groups; and community residents.

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Protecting Large Aquatic Ecosystems

The CWA authorizes EPA to administer programs for 10 large aquatic ecosystems, such as South Florida, Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Islands. These geographic-based programs involve private and public stakeholders to address specific problems, such as loss of habitat, polluted runoff and invasive species. Their activities include water quality monitoring, working with states to negotiate pollution controls, and educating citizens regarding the causes and cures for these environmental problems. EPA provides funding, guidance and technical support that builds the capacity of these programs to restore and protect their ecosystems with input from local partners.

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The NPDES permit is the CWA's principal enforcement tool. EPA may issue a compliance order or bring a civil suit in U.S. district court when there are violations of the terms of a permit. Further, the CWA provides for substantial penalties for permit violators. The CWA also allows individuals to bring a citizen suit in U.S. district court against persons who violate a permit limit or standard. Individuals may also bring citizen suits against EPA's Administrator (or equivalent state official) for failure to carry out their duties as specified under the CWA.

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The Watershed Approach

Evolution of CWA programs during the last 40 years has also included a shift from a program-by-program, source-by-source, pollutant-by-pollutant approach to a more integrated, place-based watershed protection strategy. Under the watershed approach, equal emphasis is placed on protecting healthy waters and restoring impaired ones, and a full array of issues are addressed, not just those subject to CWA regulatory authority. Involving multiple stakeholders at the state, tribal and local level to develop and implement strategies for achieving and maintaining state water quality and other environmental goals is another hallmark of this approach.

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Financial Assistance

Federal law has authorized grants for planning, design and construction of municipal sewage treatment facilities since 1956, but Congress greatly expanded this Construction Grants Program in 1972 to help cities meet the CWA's new pollution control requirements. In 1987, Congress voted to phase out this direct grant program and replace it with the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. Under this financial approach, EPA provides annual capitalization grants to states, who in turn provide low interest loans for a wide variety of water quality improvement projects. States must match the federal funds. Some funds are also provided to territories and tribes to be used as grants for municipal wastewater treatment projects. Since its inception, in excess of $84 billion has been provided via more than 28,000 agreements related to wastewater treatment, nonpoint source runoff, and watershed and estuary management. The CWA section 106 also authorizes additional federal grants to states, tries and territories to support the development and operation of core CWA programs such as monitoring, developing water quality standards, wetlands and watershed planning.

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