When the Cuyahoga River, flowing through Cleveland, Ohio, caught
fire in 1969 as a result of years of industrial pollution, public awareness
regarding the quality of our nation's water resources intensified. Pollution
was readily observable in many of the nation's rivers, lakes and streams.
With a mandate for a more effective way to protect and clean
the nations water resources, the federal government responded with the 1972
passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments, better known as
the Clean Water Act (CWA).
While the original Act was established in 1948, the 1972
amendments totally revised it. The mission was to "restore and maintain
the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nations waters."
The Clean Water Act established as a national priority the ending of discharge
pollutants into waterways.
The Act consists of two major parts, one being the
provisions that authorize federal financial assistance for municipal treatment
plant construction. The other part is regulatory requirements that apply to
industrial and municipal dischargers.
An important step taken in the CWA was the statement;
"the discharge of any pollutant by any person shall be unlawful."
While this was an unreachable goal, the effect was not to outlaw all pollution,
but to require that all discharges of pollutants be done under a federal permit
administered under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).
At the foundation of the NPDES permitting process are
specific standards set by the federal and state governments. The Act uses both
water quality standards and technology-based effluent limitations to protect
water quality. Technology-based standards are specific numerical limitations
established by EPA and placed on certain pollutants from certain sources. Water
quality standards consist of the designated use or uses of a waterbody
(recreation, water supply, industrial, etc.), plus a numerical or narrative
statement identifying maximum concentrations of pollutants that would not
interfere with the designated use.
In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) created the
first mandatory national program to protect public health through drinking
The SDWA requires EPA to regulate contaminants that present
health risks in public drinking water supplies. For each contaminant requiring
federal regulation, EPA sets a maximum contaminant level goal. EPA is then
required to establish an enforceable limit, or maximum contaminant level (MCL).
This level is as close to the goal as technologically feasible, taking costs
These regulations not only included MCLs but also
established requirements for monitoring and analyzing regulated contaminants in
drinking water, reporting analytical results, record keeping and notifying the
public when a water system fails to meet federal standards. The SDWA also gave
EPA the authority to delegate the primary responsibility for enforcing drinking
water regulations to states, territories or tribes.
There has been a three-time increase in the number of
contaminants regulated under SDWA since its passage. Many of these new
regulations occurred in 1986 when the act was reauthorized. Amendments to SDWA
in 1996 enhanced the existing law by recognizing source water protection,
operator training, funding for water system improvements and public information
as important components of safe drinking water.
Despite litigation and controversy throughout their
existence, the CWA and SDWA were groundbreaking and remain a centerpiece for
U.S. environmental policy.