The Clean Water Act became law on October 18, 1972, establishing for the first time an aggressive, comprehensive approach to federal water pollution control. Amended several times since then, the Clean Water Act (CWA) remains one of the most important environmental laws in the United States.
Water pollution, like other environmental insults, had become an increasingly vexing problem in the post-WW2 era. Traditionally, discharging wastes into streams, lakes and rivers was considered a common right, as long as the discharge did not harm others downstream or farther along the shore. With more people dumping more pollution—domestic sewage and industrial wastes—however, a different strategy was required. The first federal law to control water pollution was passed in 1948, but its aims were low and narrow. By the early 1970s, however, as former EPA Director Carol Browner said, “…the American people said ‘enough.’” Events like the burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in 1969 had convinced the country that something more needed to be done.
The Clean Water Act of 1972, therefore, was different. The fundamental goal of the law was to make all “navigable waterways safe for fishing, swimming and supplying drinking water by 1983.” The law basically removed the right to pollute, replacing it with a set of standards that relied on scientific and technical standards. The act made it against the law to discharge any pollutants into navigable waters without a permit issued by the federal government. Those permits set maximum pollutant concentrations for waste treatment plants and for all other types of discharges into surface waters.
The act was passed by overwhelming majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate, but President Nixon did not like it. Along with regulating water pollution, the act also appropriated billions of dollars to help local municipalities build water treatment plants. Nixon thought this was a budget-breaker, and he vetoed the bill. Both houses of Congress overrode his veto, however, and the bill became law.
The Clean Water Act is perhaps the most successful environmental law of all time. The proportion of our waters—lakes, streams and rivers, and estuaries—that support their officially designated highest use continues to grow. Rivers that once ran through cities supporting no aquatic life and oozing with organic and inorganic waste are now the centerpieces of revived downtown neighborhoods. Estuaries that lacked any oxygen are once again productive nurseries for fish and shellfish.
Control of water pollution, however, is not without debate and conflict. Issues relating to the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act impact how much of the nation’s waters are protected. And comprehensive data about the state of our water resources is hard to find. Data on this topic appear to have been removed from the EPA website; the latest data summaries are for 2004.
Browner, Carol M. 1997. 25th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 17, 1997. USEPA. Available at: https://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/a162fa4bfc0fd2ef8525701a004f20d7/872d86a1679743df8525701a0052e3a5!OpenDocument&Highlight=0. Accessed October 17, 2017.
Hines, N. William. 2013. History of the 1972 Clean Water Act: The Story Behind How the 1972 Act Became the Capstone on a Decade of Extraordinary Environmental Reform. Journal of Energy & Environmental Law, Summer 2013:80-106. Available at: https://gwujeel.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/4-2-hines.pdf. Accessed October 17, 2017.
USEPA. Summary of the Clean Water Act. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-water-act. Accessed October 17, 2017.