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About the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act is a water pollution-control measure, which was passed as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972. Born from a river of fire, the act has undergone many changes over the years and likely faces many more.

In this edition of eBulletin, we’ll revisit the Clean Water Act, the events that led to it, the impact it’s had and the challenges it faces now and for the future.

Fire on the water

Prior to the Clean Water Act, pollution control wasn’t a major priority for state and federal governments. As the country moved into the Industrial Age, factories and populations boomed, as did wealth. Industries churned out products without regulations on what to do with the waste. It wasn’t until the 1960s that states began adopting rules on what could be dumped in lakes and rivers, though the laws often weren’t strictly enforced or included exceptions or immunities for certain industries.

Though some progress was being made, many waterways still suffered from decades of pollution. It wasn’t until a somewhat unusual, and rather grotesque, event took place that the federal government took up the pollution control cause and passed laws not only to control pollution, but to clean it up.

One of the main catalysts for the Clean Water Act was a fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. Literally, a fire ON the river.

Riverside industries, city sewers and even residents had been dumping chemicals, garbage, household objects and other substances into the river for more than a century when, on June 22, 1969, the river caught fire and caused about $50,000 in damages, mainly to railroad bridges. No one is certain what caused the fire, but the most prevalent theory is that sparks from a railroad bridge ignited an oil slick and pile of debris below the bridge.

The fire only lasted about half an hour, and no photos were taken. However, the fire was chronicled in Time magazine, whose report wrote how the river “oozes rather than flows” through the city. Cleveland’s reputation took a hit, environmentalists took up a cause and Congress eventually took action, passing the Federal Water Pollution Control Act just three years later.

Ironically, the fire that sparked the water act wasn’t the worst on that river. The Cuyahoga had caught fire at least nine times before. The most devastating was in 1952, in a fire that lasted nearly two days and caused more than $1.5 million damage. It is pictures of that fire that are most often seen – and wrongly attributed – as being of the 1969 fire. The photo above, provided by the Cleveland State University Library’s Special Collections, is from that 1952 fire. In fact, the city’s officials had authorized $100 million a year before the 1969 fire to clean up the Cuyahoga, and a task force had been created in 1963.

What’s worse is that river fires weren’t all that uncommon before the 1970s, as water pollution largely went unchecked in several places. Other rivers, including the Buffalo River in New York and the Rouge River in Michigan, had experienced pollution-related fires around that time.

Despite many states having anti-pollution laws, it was the 1972 federal act that brought stricter – and more high-profile – control.

Today, the Cuyahoga River is part of a Remedial Action Plan to clean up the pollutants that remain, though progress has been made.

Additional Resources

Cuyahoga River fire images

Myths surrounding Cuyahoga River fire

An Act in development

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 was signed into law by President Nixon on Jan. 1, 1970, and was considered the starting point for the Clean Water Act. The bill came at a time of rapid growth in environmental awareness, with groups like the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society seeing massive growth in its members. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was a massive success as well.

Heeding the call of voters, Congress took a 1948 law, reorganized and expanded it and passed it in 1972 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. After several major amendments in 1977, the law became more commonly known as the Clean Water Act.

The Act’s basic objective was to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s water,” according to the Federal Wildlife Laws Handbook.

The Clean Water Act tackled every aspect of pollution control, monitoring, policy and funding related to protecting the country’s water systems. Programs such as the Clean Water State Revolving Fund emerged from the act to help states fund water-quality initiatives.

A few of the things the Clean Water Act does include:

  • gives states primary rights and responsibilities to control and eliminate pollution;
  • authorizes research programs to study pollution prevention, reduction and elimination;
  • allows the EPA to enter into agreements with states and Canada to provide special protection for the Great Lakes;
  • requires the EPA to monitor the aquatic sediment quality of waters in the U.S.;
  • requires plans for waste treatment management before discharge;
  • allows the states to establish revolving loan funds for pollution control;
  • sets limits on effluent discharge and requires certain levels of water treatment
  • establishes a program by which industries cannot discharge pollutants into navigable waters without a permit;
  • requires permits before dredged or fill material is disposed of in waters, including in wetlands
  • regulates the disposal and use of sewage sludge;
  • prohibits the discharge of oil or hazardous substances, establishes liability for those who violate the rule and creates a national response system in case of a discharge;
  • requires the EPA to develop performance standards for water vessels to receive, retain, treat or discharge sewage;
  • establishes a clean lakes program by which states must report on their efforts to keep their lakes free of pollution;
  • requires the states to monitor non-point source pollution, to make sure pollution from watersheds doesn’t damage bodies of water further down the system.

Whew! That’s a lot of stuff, and that just scratches the watery surface.

Those rules and regulations continue to change as Congress looks at changes in water treatment technology, booming populations, industry desires, funding needs and new risks to water quality.

Additional Resources

EPA – Clean Water Act

Sewing up a loophole

Recently, legislation was introduced in both the U.S. House and the Senate to clarify language in the Clean Water Act that had recently been challenged in Supreme Court cases – specifically, to “clearly define the waters of the United States.”

The proposals are in response to Supreme Court decisions that environmentalists say have weakened the Clean Water Act, lifting or weakening protection of more than half of the nation’s waters.

One such case is Rapanos v. United States, decided in 2006. In that case, developer John A. Rapanos was accused of filling 54 acres of wetlands with sand in the 1980s to build a shopping mall. His project was stopped, he was convicted of two felonies and was ordered to pay $5,000 in fines. Rapanos sued, challenging the Clean Water Act’s definition of “navigable waterways” and the EPA’s broad interpretation of the term.

The Supreme Court heard the case in February 2006 and issued its ruling in June 2006. Five of the nine justices agreed to void the rulings against Rapanos, but the judges split on arguing for a more restrictive interpretation of “navigable waters,” with one judge remaining neutral.

In another case, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a five-justice majority ruled the Clean Water Act didn’t extend to isolated, intrastate waters because they weren’t attached to truly navigable waters. The solid waste agency, a group of several municipal services around the Chicago area, wanted to build a landfill on land that included a small lake and wetlands. The Corps denied a permit to them based on the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Act. The agency claimed the waters in question weren’t “navigable waterways” and that the term was too broad, therefore the Corps didn’t have a right to block the project. An Appeals Court sided with the Corps, but the solid waste agency appealed to the Supreme Court.

On Jan. 9, 2001, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision and ruled that the broad “navigable waterways” term didn’t apply to the land in question.

As a result, the two proposals currently in congressional committees seek to define specifically what waters are protected under the Clean Water Act, to close the act’s loophole.

Information on the cases can be found on Wikipedia or in the other links below. We also provide links to the current legislation, which can be found on the Library of Congress’ Web site.

Officials expect the Clean Water Act to continue to evolve as technologies – and the risk of more pollution – change the needs of waterway and water source protection. Other laws, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Great Lakes Legacy Act, work in conjunction with the Clean Water Act to maintain the country’s waters.

Additional Resources

Clean Water Act – Wikipedia

FindLaw – Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. United States Army Corps of Engineers et al.

Clean Water Restoration Act 2007 (Senate bill)

Clean Water Restoration Act 2007 (House bill)

Shoring up infrastructure

Wastewater treatment systems are among those most impacted by the Clean Water Act. Water systems, too, have felt the impact of the regulations and policies set forth in this Act. Its constant change sometimes can cause headaches when it comes to keeping up with the latest regulations. But its impact – and the needs it still must address – have not gone unnoticed by government officials.

On Oct. 16, the House passed a resolution recognizing the 35th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. The resolution stated that the act has made “substantial progress” in protecting water quality thanks to federal, state and local government cooperation. However, Congress also acknowledged a drastic need among water systems.

“The nation’s decaying water infrastructure and a lack of available funding to maintain and upgrade the nation’s wastewater infrastructure pose a serious threat to the water quality improvements achieved over the past 35 years,” the resolution states.

It also acknowledges a funding gap “of between $300 billion and $400 billion over the next 20 years for the restoration and replacement of wastewater infrastructure.”

The resolution called on members of Congress to maintain the protections originally intended in the Clean Water Act, and it promised to work “toward a sustainable, long-term solution to address the nation’s decaying water infrastructure.” It is hoped that a permanent “trust fund” will be established to provide funds for necessary infrastructure improvements to wastewater facilities that serve all Americans.

It’s fairly safe to say the Clean Water Act will continue to evolve. Hopefully, with that evolution will come more ways to help water and wastewater systems maintain their quality by repairing or replacing problem infrastructure. If so, it may make it easier to do what the Act intended: Maintain a supply of usable drinking water and a source of recreation and enjoyment for years to come.

Additional Resources

House Resolution 725