Clean Water Act
CLEAN WATER ACT
During the 1960s, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire, Lake Erie was so polluted it was said to be dying, and human sewage and pollution commonly killed fish in the nation's rivers and streams. Public concern grew so overwhelming that the United States Congress enacted the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 over the veto of President Richard Nixon. The law, commonly known as the Clean Water Act, set two national goals: elimination of the discharge of pollutants into the nation's waters, and achievement of water quality to protect fishing and swimming. Pollutants from industrial and sewage treatment plants and runoff from city streets and farmlands can contain organic pollutants, including sewage and toxic substances such as heavy metals and chemicals. If poorly controlled, these pollutants can cause diarrhea, cancer, and other serious diseases.
Clean water is essential to the health of all Americans for drinking water, swimming, and other water recreation; as well as for the health of fish and all aquatic life. Between 1972 and 1998, the United States has doubled the amount of water clean enough for fishing and swimming. In addition, wetland losses have dropped dramatically and the number of people served by modern sewage treatment plants more than doubled, to 173 million, in 1998.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with other federal, state, tribal, and local agencies administer programs that regulate the discharge of pollutants and the dredging and filling of waterways and wetlands. Wastewater discharge pipes from industrial or sewage treatment plants are point sources, and they require a permit based on available treatment technologies and water quality standards. As a result of amendments made to the Clean Water Act in 1977, limits have been established for over one hundred pollutants discharged by fifty-one different kinds of industry.
In 1998, pollution runoff became the leading cause of water pollution in the United States. These diffuse, nonpoint sources of water pollution may contain soil, pesticides, fertilizers, oil, grease, and animal wastes from farmlands, streets, parking lots, and construction sites. Since amendments to the Clean Water Act in 1987, the EPA has expanded the number of these sources that require a permit.
In 1998, approximately 450,000 animal feeding operations existed throughout the United States, ranging from small livestock facilities to large, concentrated animal feeding operations for cattle, hogs, and chickens. Pollution from these sources can cause significant environmental and public health problems, including algae growth in surface water, contamination of drinking water supplies, fish kills, and odor problems. Ponds and lagoons that store manure and other liquid waste can overflow during heavy rainfalls or lagoon walls can break, sending bacteria, hormones, and antibiotics into waterways. The EPA is developing permit programs for the approximately 6,600 concentrated animal feeding operations.
The Watershed Approach Framework developed by the EPA in 1996 seeks to go beyond political, social, and economic boundaries by designing and applying programs to control the many sources of pollution in an area draining into a river or other body of water. One watershed approach involves calculating the maximum amount of pollutants that a body of water can receive from all contributing point and nonpoint sources. Agencies can use this "total maximum daily load" to allocate pollution limits among various sources. The nation's clean water laws have evolved from regulating direct discharges of organic and toxic pollutants to a system controlling diffuse, nonpoint sources of pollution. The watershed approach goes one step further by looking at all the sources of water pollution in a geographic area.
Copeland, C. (2000). Water Quality: Implementing the Clean Water Act. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. The National Council for Science and the Environment.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1998). Wastewater Primer. Washington, DC: Office of Water, Environmental Protection Agency.
—— (2000). Water Quality Conditions in the United States: A Profile from the 1998 National Water Quality Inventory Report to Congress. Washington, DC: Office of Water, Environmental Protection Agency.
—— (2000). Atlas of America's Polluted Waters. Washington, DC: Office of Water, Environmental Protection Agency. (EPA documents available at http://www.epa.gov/epahome/waterpgram.htm.)