Clean Water Act in the US

Due to a continuous lack of investment over the years, there are raised public concerns in the US about the affordability of household water in future, and issues about disinfection by-products, lead levels, accumulation of perchlorates and chemical substances affecting drinking water quality. Since the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 (amended in 1977) began the process of improvements, generally water quality in the U.S. has been adequate, but it took the Clean Water Act of 2002 to streamline and co-ordinate public laws on water quality to bring it to its present state.

Responsible parties

US cities, utility companies, state and federal governments are all involved in tackling water issues. To keep pace with demand from an increasing population, utilities have boosted supplies from various sources. However, water conservation is paramount in the current economic climate and is being supported through the federal WaterSense program. Programmes which reuse treated wastewater are becoming increasingly common where water quality for drinking is not necessary, for example providing water for livestock or agriculture, especially since pollution through wastewater discharges, a major issue in the 1960s, has been brought largely under control. This was as a result of enforcement of elements of the Clean Water Act (e.g. that relating to non point source pollution).

However, there is still a great deal of work to maintain waterways in which animal and pond life can flourish, and which prevents no hazard to human use for recreation, either in and on the water surface. The CWA not only contains relevant industry standards for effluent, but also sections relating to chemical hazards such as oil spills and how to co-ordinate clean-up operations to acceptable standards. In general, this suggests much continued work for water treatment companies, sanitation engineers, plumbers and other water related professions, to obtain new water sources, treat sewage and pollutants and maintain private and public systems, even though in general the water workforce has shrunk.

Clean Water Act History

So from consumer awareness over water pollution to the work of Congress in establishing laws governing the basic structure for regulating pollutants discharged into the waters of the United States, the CWA gave the Environment Protection Agency the authority to carry out pollution control programs, which included identifying wastewater standards for industrial companies. The Clean Water Act required water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters that affect the chemical, physical or biological integrity of the water and made it illegal to discharge any pollutant into navigable waters, from a point source (in other words a single localized source at which the pollutants infect the water), unless an appropriate permit was obtained. Furthermore, it funded new sewage treatment plants and posed solutions to tackle increasing pollution carried in runoff water after rainfall.

Amendments to the law in 1981 streamlined the grants process for individual state construction programmes, improving the capacity of water treatment plants being built with CWA funding. 1987 saw the construction grants program close, replaced by the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. This new funding strategy used EPA-State partnerships to solve water quality issues.

Other laws have been introduced that change clauses of the Clean Water Act. For example, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978 between Canada and the USA introduced standards over certain pollutants in the Great Lakes, including maintaining levels that are safe for humans, wildlife, and aquatic life.


Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972.

To access details of the CWA as amended in 2002 (Public Law 107-303, November 27, 2002), check

This includes corresponding sections of the U.S. Code and commentary on the effect of other laws on the current form of the Act.

For more information on the Clean Water Act, please visit the Watershed Academy's Web-based training module called Introduction to the Clean Water Act -

Since the law is constantly being amended, you can go to the Thomas website of the Library of Congress, which contains laws that have not yet been codified, in order to see the latest relevant statutes regarding water quality -