Federal Water Act (1972)


The Federal Water Act of 1972 was the reorganization and expansion of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1948). The legislation set standards for water quality in the United States.


The Federal Water Act of 1972 and its revisions are together more commonly known as the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA is made up of seven core programs, developed to protect water sources in the United States. First, the CWA establishes the standards, such as scientific measures, used to measure the success of the CWA programs. Authorized Native American tribes are able to set their own goals and limits for the waters within their jurisdictions. The set standards are then used to determine which waters need to be cleaned up, what is needed for the protection of the water, and how much pollution can be removed. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for reviewing and approving the standards determined by states and tribes and providing the needed technical and scientific support. Additionally, the EPA may play a role in replacing standards that do not meet the CWA requirements.

The CWA mandates that states must assess the condition of surface waters every two years and submit a list of areas that do not meet the set standards. The EPA then uses this information to develop programs to restore them, the second core program of the CWA.

The CWA also protects water through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. Facilities that wish to discharge polluted wastewater into a body of water must first obtain a permit through the EPA. Before receiving a permit, the facility must pass certain criteria, such as proving that it is using the best available technology to reduce the amount of pollution in the discharge.

The fourth core program was developed through an amendment to the CWA in 1987. This amendment created a new federal program to help states, tribes, and territories develop ways to reduce the amount of pollution from nonpoint (not direct) sources into water. For example, runoff from agriculture is a nonpoint source.

The final three core programs of the CWA involve the protection of water sources, including protection of wetlands, coastal waters, and large aquatic ecosystems. Programs vary from water quality monitoring and pollution control to public education. Together, the seven core programs, along with the additional legislation covered by the CWA, work to protect and improve water sources in the United States.


The Federal Water Act of 1972 set a new national goal, “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters,” which as of 2012, was still the basis of the CWA. It was developed at a time when the United States was concerned about the amount of untreated sewage, contaminated runoff, and industrial and toxic pollutants flowing into bodies of water within its borders. The purpose of the act, and its later revisions, was to make federal waters fishable and swimmable wherever possible and to protect nature, including the wetlands, coastal waters, and large aquatic ecosystems.


The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was the first major law in the United States that focused on water pollution. As time passed, the public became aware of the importance of keeping bodies of the water in the United States from becoming polluted. This awareness led to major reorganization and expansion of the 1948 act, known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972. The original act, along with the 1972 amendments, became known as the Clean Water Act. Later, changes were made to the CWA, including revisions in 1977 and 1987. None of these revisions changed the original shape and goals of the 1972 act.


Following the approval of the 1972 version of the CWA, water sources in the United States showed major improvements. The CWA is considered by many as the most successful U.S. environmental law. Research from 2004 showed that the rate at which wetlands were being destroyed in the United was reduced 90% from the 1970s. Additionally, the amount of oil spilled into U.S. water was one-tenth of the rate it was in the early 1970s. These are only two benefits attributed, at least partially, to the CWA.

A change or addition to a legal document.
A biological community made up of interacting organisms and their environment.
Point source discharge—
A confined and discrete release of something directly into a specific source. For example, a point source discharge into water can be from a pipe into a river or stream.

In the early 2000s, the EPA continued to struggle to protect the 3.5 million miles (5.6 million km) of rivers and streams in the United States. Many believed that the full potential of the CWA had not been realized and that with continued support, education, and program development, water in the United States can continue to be protected and improved.

See also Clean Water Act (1972, 1977, 1987) ; Water pollution ; Water quality .



Ryan, Mark A. The Clean Water Act Handbook. 3rd ed. Chicago: American Bar Association, 2011.


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “The Clean Water Act: Protecting and Restoring Our Nation's Waters.” water.epa.gov/action/cleanwater40/cwa101.cfm (accessed October 18, 2012).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “History of the Clean Water Act.” http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/cwahistory.html (accessed October 18, 2012).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Water Is Worth It.” http://water.epa.gov/action/cleanwater40/ (accessed October 18, 2012).


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ariel Rios Bldg., 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 20460, (202) 272-0167; TTY (202) 272-0165, http://www.epa.gov .

Water Quality Association, 4151 Naperville Rd., Lisle, IL, 60532, (630) 505-0160, Fax: (630) 505-9637, http://www.wqa.org .

Tish Davidson, AM

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