What is the Clean Water Act?

And why does this 50-year-old law matter to you, your community, and the waters you love?

Clean water

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It’s hard to imagine a law that affects more Americans on a daily basis than the Clean Water Act. 

If you dip an oar into a river, cast a fishing line into a stream, dive into the waves crashing on shore, or fill a glass at your kitchen sink, your health and wellbeing depend on the Clean Water Act to prevent pollution from contaminating the waters you use for boating, fishing, swimming and drinking.

Enacted in 1972, the law set lofty goals: to make all of the country’s waterways safe for fishing, swimming and drinking by 1983, and to cease all direct discharges of pollutants by 1985.

By those ambitious standards, the law hasn’t met the mark. Yet the Clean Water Act has still driven significant improvements in water quality across the United States. Here’s how:

  • Requiring polluters to ask for permission. The Clean Water Act made it illegal to dump pollution into waterways without a permit, and required similar permits for pollution washing off of industrial sites and other facilities during storms. These permits give regulators a tool for reducing pollution by steadily ratcheting down the amounts of wastes that companies are allowed to dump into our waters.
  • Setting technology-based pollution standards. The act set standards that require industrial facilities to use up-to-date technologies to limit pollution discharges. As technologies improve, regulators can set higher expectations for companies to reduce or eliminate pollutants.
  • Setting standards and requiring commitments. The act requires states to set standards for water quality that would enable waterways to support “designated uses” such as fishing, swimming or supplying drinking water. States were required to identify any waterways that did not meet the standards and develop plans for bringing them into compliance. Those plans might require steps such as reducing runoff from businesses or streets, improving sewage treatment, or ratcheting down the amount of pollution that could be released by industrial polluters.
  • Preventing clean waterways from becoming dirty. The law’s “antidegradation” policy prevents waterways that currently meet the safety standards for uses such as fishing and swimming from backsliding into unusable condition. For some especially valuable and pristine waterways, no reduction in water quality is permitted at all.
  • Funding improvements in the infrastructure that keeps water clean. Under the Clean Water Act, municipal governments looking to build or improve sewage treatment plants in an effort to reduce pollution are eligible for federal help in financing those improvements, through a funding program today called the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. Good environmental behavior is rewarded.
  • Empowering citizens (like you) to enforce the law. Often, state and federal regulators lack the resources to monitor pollution from industrial facilities and face pressure not to penalize facilities who break the law. The Clean Water Act enables citizens to enforce the law directly by suing polluters who fail to follow it. This “citizen suit” provision has been a critical tool for holding both industry and government accountable and protecting the environment.

These powerful policies have been used by individuals and groups of citizens, as well as cities and state governments, to push parties at all levels to keep improving the quality of America’s waterways. For example, in the 1970s student volunteer Streamwalkers identified and reported illegal pollution discharges. Environmental attorneys have sued to enforce the act on behalf of citizens. Local and state groups have lobbied for tougher penalties to enforce the law as well. Community activists have organized grassroots support to hold violators of the law accountable.

To learn more about how you can help the citizen activists, advocates and attorneys who are harnessing the power of the Clean Water Act to restore our waters to health, check out our clean water page below.

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Authors

John Rumpler

Senior Director, Clean Water for America Campaign and Senior Attorney, Environment America

John directs Environment America's efforts to protect our rivers, lakes, streams and drinking water. John’s areas of expertise include lead and other toxic threats to drinking water, factory farms and agribusiness pollution, algal blooms, fracking and the federal Clean Water Act. He previously worked as a staff attorney for Alternatives for Community & Environment and Tobacco Control Resource Center. John lives in Brookline, Mass., with his family, where he enjoys cooking, running, playing tennis, chess and building sandcastles on the beach.

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