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History of the Clean Water Act

June 15, 2021
Clear lake surrounded by trees on a sunny day

The Clean Water Act is a cornerstone of U.S. environmental regulations. Originating from the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, the policy’s goal is to protect streams, rivers, lakes and bays throughout the United States. It allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to define water quality and wastewater standards for industries, managing the discharge of pollutants in navigable waterways. The Clean Water Act also regulates point source water pollution. These single identifiable sources include leaking pipes, ditches, farms, smoke stacks and more.

This regulation impacts countless industries, from agriculture to manufacturing to sewage treatment. Understanding the history of the Clean Water Act as well as other environmental regulations is critical to knowing where the regulation will be moving in the future. Learn more about its past and future below.

An Evolving Regulation

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act was the first substantial U.S. regulation to address water pollution. It came following the massive growth and expansion after World War II when waterways across the U.S. were feeling the impact from industrial and urban pollution. Previously smaller laws, such as the Refuse Act, attempted to address the issue, but still bodies were being contaminated. However, when the final version of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed, it only protected interstate waterways, which many argued meant it was still too weak to be effective.1

In 1972, amendments were added, giving shape to today’s Clean Water Act. Throughout the 1960s, the need for protection of bodies of water in the U.S. came to the public’s attention. Events and chronic problems were making the news, from bacteria levels in the Hudson River to a massive fish kill in one Florida lake.2 Another news story was a series of fires on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River. In 1969, an oil slick caught fire near downtown Cleveland. This was the third time the river had caught fire, which garnered national attention.1

The Environmental Protection Agency had just been established two years before when the Clean Water Act was passed. Congress overrode a veto by President Richard Nixon to bring it to fruition.2 The EPA outlines that the Clean Water Act accomplished the following:

  • Established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States.
  • Gave EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry.
  • Maintained existing requirements to set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters.
  • Made it unlawful for any person to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained under its provisions.
  • Funded the construction of sewage treatment plants under the construction grants program.
  • Recognized the need for planning to address the critical problems posed by nonpoint source pollution.3

The Future of Clean Water

Today, there is still debate on whether the Clean Water Act does enough to protect waterways and the integrity of water quality in the United States. Though it has decreased contamination, many say it still doesn’t address some critical polluters, including nonpoint source pollution, which includes runoff, drainage and other pollution that’s not directly held responsible by one source.

Recently, a multitude of changes have been made to the regulation. In 2015, the Clean Water Rule, or Waters of the United States, was introduced by the EPA under President Barack Obama. Its goal was to address some of conservationists’ concerns, which included the 117 million people getting drinking water from waterways not explicitly protected by the Clean Water Act. It also defined which waterways fall under federal protection and addressed recent Supreme Court rulings that it said muddied protections for the majority of streams and wetlands.4 A few years later, President Donald Trump repealed the rule. He replaced it with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, a regulation that some experts say goes beyond just rolling back provisions Obama introduced.5

Nearly 50 years after its passing, the Clean Water Act is still evolving and being debated. Many activists are pushing for the EPA to strengthen its influence on today’s industries. During its lifespan, the regulation has had a significant impact on U.S. waterways, especially Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, one of the environmental scandals that helped create the legislation in the first place. While one city official noted that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, in 2019 Ohio EPA officials announced that it was safe to eat fish caught from the river in moderation.6

Stay ahead of tomorrow’s regulations.

The Clean Water Act is just one federation regulation with a long and evolving history in the United States. For those in industries, corporations, agencies and other organizations directly impacted by this law, knowing how to anticipate changes is critical. Of course, those changes can happen on local, state, federal and international scales.

Through Tulane University’s online Master of Jurisprudence in Environmental Law, find the up-to-the-minute tools and knowledge to stay ahead. Our program is taught by practicing legal professionals and experienced full-time professors in Tulane Law School, who understand the nuances and complexity of environmental regulations.

Also, be sure to explore our online Master of Jurisprudence in Energy Law, which focuses on the legal framework impacting the heavily regulated energy industry.