History of Clean Water Act
October 18, 2012 marks the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which serves as the primary statute governing the quality of our nation’s water. This landmark piece of legislation has allowed many highly polluted bodies of water in the U.S. to once again be available for recreational activities like swimming and fishing.
Originally passed in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the sweeping 1972 amendments provided the first effective enforcement mechanism to ensure water quality standards were met. The law has been amended again since 1972, most notably in 1977 and 1981, but the 1972 amendments still make up the bulk of the framework commonly known today as the Clean Water Act.
Under the Clean Water Act, any facility that discharges waste into a body of water must first obtain a permit from the EPA or their designated representative (to date 46 state agencies are authorized to issue permits under the program). 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 Clean Water Act as targets for individual bodies of water. These may also be invoked to require additional mitigation measures before issuing a permit if water quality targets have not been met.
Later amendments to the Clean Water Act have increased the number of facilities requiring permits, most notably large agricultural facilities that were exempt from earlier legislation, and have provided federal grants for municipal wastewater treatment.
When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, less than one third of U.S. waterways met water quality standards. Today more than two thirds meet standards. In addition, many of the worst effects of unchecked industrial water pollution have been significantly eliminated. Lake Erie, which by 1972 no longer supported any significant aquatic life, and the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, which famously caught fire in 1969, are both once again available for human recreation.
We’ve come a long way since 1972, but we still have a ways to go to ensure not only that our nation’s water quality continues to improve, but also that we don’t slip backwards.