The Clean Water Act Turns 40

January 17, 2012


The Mackinac Bridge across the Staits of Mackinac photo by Steve Damstra

 

 

Since the Clean Water Act was passed forty years ago, the Great Lakes system is cleaner.  There is still room for improvement however.  Since ground water is not included, the water cycle will feed pollutants into rivers and lakes.  This is a loophole in the law.

Introduction to the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the cornerstone of surface water quality protection in the United States. (The Act does not deal directly with ground water nor with water quantity issues.) The statute employs a variety of regulatory and nonregulatory tools to sharply reduce direct pollutant discharges into waterways, finance municipal wastewater treatment facilities, and manage polluted runoff. These tools are employed to achieve the broader goal of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters so that they can support “the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and recreation in and on the water.”

For many years following the passage of CWA in 1972, EPA, states, and Indian tribes focused mainly on the chemical aspects of the “integrity” goal. During the last decade, however, more attention has been given to physical and biological integrity. Also, in the early decades of the Act’s implementation, efforts focused on regulating discharges from traditional “point source” facilities, such as municipal sewage plants and industrial facilities, with little attention paid to runoff from streets, construction sites, farms, and other “wet-weather” sources.

Starting in the late 1980s, efforts to address polluted runoff have increased significantly. For “nonpoint” runoff, voluntary programs, including cost-sharing with landowners are the key tool. For “wet weather point sources” like urban storm sewer systems and construction sites, a regulatory approach is being employed.

Evolution of CWA programs over the last decade has also included something of a shift from a program-by-program, source-by-source, pollutant-by-pollutant approach to more holistic watershed-based strategies. Under the watershed approach equal emphasis is placed on protecting healthy waters and restoring impaired ones. A full array of issues are addressed, not just those subject to CWA regulatory authority. Involvement of stakeholder groups in the development and implementation of strategies for achieving and maintaining state water quality and other environmental goals is another hallmark of this approach.

As described by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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