Environmental Law: Learn about the Clean Water Act

By The Wyoming LLC Attorney Team
April 24, 2023

In 1972, the Clean Water Act became a federal law designed to maintain and improve water quality across America. Specifically, its main objective is to ensure all Americans have access to safe and clean drinking, swimming, and fishing water. The Act came about after years of public outrage over the deplorable state of the nation's water bodies. Rivers and lakes had become so polluted with industrial waste and human sewage that many were deemed unsuitable for recreational activities or fishing. There were also concerns that significant water pollution would lead to various diseases and negatively affect public health. President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act into law in 1972, which provided the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to set water quality standards and restrict discharging of pollutants in national waters.

Clean Water legislation seeks to restore and preserve the physical, chemical, and biological purity of water bodies like rivers and lakes across the country. To this end, its purpose is to prevent or limit pollution discharge into these bodies of water. In addition to pollution regulation, the Clean Water Act also sets water quality standards to protect the habitats of marine organisms and wildlife. Furthermore, this Act seeks to decrease point sources of pollution, such as industrial facilities or wastewater treatment plants, by setting pollution limits that ensure safe recreation use and human consumption while safeguarding marine organisms and their environments.

The Clean Water Act is administered and enforced by federal and state environmental agencies that require any source of pollution to obtain a permit before being authorized to discharge pollutants into navigable waters. These authorizations are called National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits. In most instances, state environmental agencies have control of this permit program through the EPA and the standards it has set for water quality. The EPA water quality standards cover metals, nutrients, and pesticides. These regulations aim to protect both human well-being and the environment and use the best available technology for pollution control. The Clean Water Act also covers non-point sources of pollution, such as agricultural runoff and stormwater runoff, which are more difficult to regulate due to being located in multiple places and hard to identify. Best management practices (BMPs) may help to mitigate non-point source pollution.

Even though the Clean Water Act has proven its worth over time, its implementation remains challenging due to a lack of funding for enforcement and compliance efforts. EPA officials have struggled to keep up with a vast backlog of permits that need to be issued and monitored to ensure compliance with the law. The Act also faces opposition from certain industries that feel it creates an unfair burden by being too expensive and restrictive for economic growth. On the other hand, supporters of this law point out its effectiveness in cleaning up our nation's waterways and safeguarding public health. Supporters also highly its creation of jobs within environmental sectors while outweighing compliance costs concerning clean water benefits.

At its heart, the Clean Water Act is a critical piece of environmental legislation in the US, setting clear standards for water quality and regulating pollution releases into American waterways. Although effective at reducing pollution levels, more is still required to protect and restore national water resources. By learning more about environmental legislation like the Clean Water Act, everyone can contribute to the health and well-being of water sources while helping preserve ecosystems that rely upon them.