Clean Water Act (1972, 1977, 1987)


Federal involvement in protecting the nation's waters began with the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, the first statute to provide state and local governments with the funding to address water pollution. It is commonly referred to as the Clean Water Act.

Natural water treatment system. San Diego Creek watershed in Orange County, California collects urban surface drainage that contains fertilizers, pesticides, and pathogens.

Natural water treatment system. San Diego Creek watershed in Orange County, California collects urban surface drainage that contains fertilizers, pesticides, and pathogens. The water then flows to Newport Bay and ultimately to the Pacific Ocean. Since 1998, urban runoff is treated in the reconstructed wetlands at the San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine. A large portion of polluted water is diverted from the creek into a series of man made ponds where plants (like cattails and bulrush) and soils in the ponds naturally remove nitrates and other pollutants. The cleaner water is delivered back into the creek resulting in significant reduction of nitrogen and other pollutants in Newport Bay.
(GIPhotoStock/Science Source)


Despite these advances, it was not until the Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972 that the federal government assumed the dominant role in defining and directing water pollution control programs. This law was the outcome of a battle between Congress and President Richard M. Nixon. In 1970, Nixon responded to public outcry over pollution problems by resurrecting the Refuse Act of 1899 that authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue discharge permits. Congress felt its prerogative to set national policy had been challenged. It debated for nearly 18 months to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of a new law, and on October 18, 1972, Congress overrode a presidential veto and passed the Water Pollution Control Amendments.

Section 101 of the new law set forth its fundamental goals and policies, which continue to this day “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters.” This section also set forth the national goal of eliminating discharges of pollution into navigable waters by 1985 and an interim goal of achieving water quality levels to protect fish, shellfish, and wildlife. As national policy, the discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts was now prohibited; federal financial assistance was to be given for constructing publicly owned waste treatment works; area-wide pollution control planning was to be instituted in states; research and development programs were to be established for technologies to eliminate pollution; and nonpoint source pollution—runoff from urban and rural areas—was to be controlled. Although the federal government set these goals, states were given the main responsibility for meeting them, and the goals were to be pursued through a permitting program in the new national pollutant discharge elimination system (NPDES).


The law also established provisions authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to issue permits for discharging dredge or fill material into navigable waters at specified disposal sites. In recent years this program, a key component of federal efforts to protect rapidly diminishing wetlands, has become one of the most explosive issues in the Clean Water Act. Farmers and developers are demanding that the federal government cease “taking” their private property through wetlands regulations, and recent sessions of Congress have been besieged with demands for revisions to this section of the law.


Federal grants for constructing publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) totaled $1.25 billion in 1971, and they were increased dramatically by the new law. The act authorized $5 billion in fiscal year 1973, $6 billion for fiscal year 1974, and $7 billion for fiscal year 1975, all of which would be automatically available for use without requiring congressional appropriation action each year. But along with these funds, the Act conferred the responsibility to achieve a strict standard of secondary treatment by July 1, 1977. Secondary treatment of sewage consists of a biological process that relies on naturally occurring bacteria and other micro-organisms to break down organic material in sewage. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was mandated to publish guidelines on secondary treatment within 60 days after passage of the law. POTWs also had to meet a July 1, 1983, deadline for a stricter level of treatment described in the legislation as “best practicable wastewater treatment.” In addition, pretreatment programs were to be established to control industrial discharges that would either harm the treatment system or, having passed through it, pollute receiving waters.

The act also gave polluting industries two new deadlines. By July 1, 1977, they were required to meet limits on the pollution in their discharged effluent using Best Practicable Technology (BPT), as defined by the EPA. The conventional pollutants to be controlled included organic waste, sediment, acid, bacteria and viruses, nutrients, oil and grease, and heat. Stricter state water quality standards would also have to be met by that date. The second deadline was July 1, 1983, when industrial dischargers had to install Best Available Control Technology (BAT), to advance the goal of eliminating all pollutant discharges by 1985. These BPT and BAT requirements were intended to be “technology forcing,” as envisioned by the Senate, which wanted the new water law to restore water quality and protect ecological systems.


In 1977, Congress completed its first major revisions of the Water Pollution Control Amendments (which was renamed the Clean Water Act), responding to the fact that by July 1, 1977, only 30% of major municipalities were complying with secondary treatment requirements. Moreover, a National Commission on Water Quality had issued a report that recommended zero discharge be redefined to stress conservation and reuse and that the 1983 BAT requirements be postponed for five to ten years. The 1977 Clean Water Act endorsed the goals of the 1972 law, but granted states broader authority to run their construction grants programs. The Act also provided deadline extensions and required EPA to expand the lists of pollutants it was to regulate.

In 1981, Congress found it necessary to change the construction grants program; thousands of projects had been started, with $26.6 billion in federal funds, but only 2,223 projects worth $2.8 billion had been completed. The Construction Grant Amendments of 1981 restricted the types of projects that could use grant money and reduced the amount of time it took for an application to go through the grants program.

The Water Quality Act of 1987 phased out the grants program by fiscal year 1990, while phasing in a state revolving loan fund program through fiscal year 1994, and thereafter ending federal assistance for wastewater treatment. The 1987 act also laid greater emphasis on toxic substances; it required, for instance, that the EPA identify and set standards for toxic pollutants in sewage sludge, and it phased in requirements for stormwater permits. The 1987 law also established a new toxics program requiring states to identify toxic hot spots—waters that would not meet water quality standards even after technology controls have been established—and mandated additional controls for those bodies of water.


These mandates greatly increased the number of NPDES permits that the EPA and state governments issued, stretching budgets of both to the limit. Moreover, states have billions of dollars worth of wastewater treatment needs that remain unfunded, contributing to continued violations of water quality standards. The new permit requirements for storm-water, together with sewer overflow, sludge, and other permit requirements, as well as POTW construction needs, led to a growing demand for more state flexibility in implementing the clean water laws and for continued federal support for wastewater treatment. State and local governments insist that they cannot do everything the law requires; they argue that they must be allowed to assess and prioritize their particular problems.

Despite these demands for less prescriptive federal mandates, on May 15, 1991, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Act to expand the federal program. The proposal was eventually set aside after intense debate in both the House and Senate over controversial wetlands issues. Amendments to the Clean Water Act proposed in both 1994 and 1995 also failed to make it to a vote.

In 1998, President Clinton introduced a Clean Water Action Plan, which primarily focused on improving compliance, increasing funding, and accelerating completion dates on existing programs authorized under the Clean Water Act. The plan contained over 100 action items that involved interagency cooperation of EPA, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Army Corps of Engineers, Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, Tennessee Valley Authority, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Justice. Key goals were to control nonpoint pollution, provide financial incentives for conservation and stewardship of private lands, restore wetlands, and expand the public's right to know on water pollution issues.

New rules were proposed in 1999 to strengthen the requirements for states to set limits for and monitor the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of pollution in their waterways. The TMDL rule has been controversial, primarily because states and local authorities lack the funds and resources to carry out this large-scale project. In addition, agricultural and forestry interests, who previously were not regulated under the Clean Water Act, would be affected by TMDL rules.

Research and general acceptance

As the Federal Water Pollution Control Act passed its thirtieth anniversary, the EPA state and federal regulators are increasingly recognizing the need for a more comprehensive approach to water pollution problems than the current system, which focuses predominantly on POTWs and industrial facilities. Nonpoint source pollution, caused when rain washes pollution from farmlands and urban areas, is the largest remaining source of water quality impairment, yet the problem has not received a fraction of the regulatory attention addressed to industrial and municipal discharges. Despite this fact, the EPA claims that the Clean Water Act is responsible for a one billion ton decrease in annual soil runoff from farming, and an associated reduction in phosphorus and nitrogen levels in water sources. The EPA also asserts that wetland loss, while still a problem, has slowed significantly—from 1972 levels of 460,000 acres per year to losses of approximately 90,000 acres in 2009. Over half of this current wetland loss occurred in the eastern coastal United States from Louisiana to North Carolina. However, critics question these figures, citing abandoned mitigation projects and reclaimed wetlands that bear little resemblance to the habitat they are supposed to replicate.

See also Water pollution ; Water quality ; Water quality standards ; Viruses .



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America's Clean Water Foundation, 750 First St. NE, Ste. 1030, Washington, DC, 20002, (202) 898-0908, Fax: (202) 898-0977,, . html.

David Clarke
Paula Anne Ford-Martin

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.