The Clean Water Act: What to Know

A series of devastating environmental events in the mid-20th century shined a light on the need to protect the nation’s waterways, including Lake Champlain. People joined together at the local, state, and federal levels to push for new regulations to protect the environment, culminating with the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

The Clean Water Act was federal legislation intended to reduce water pollution and make waters “fishable and swimmable.” It protected the waters of the United States, including Lake Champlain and improved water quality across the country. It also was not perfect, but importantly it was just the beginning of working to keep our water clean.

Passing the Clean Water Act

Concern about water quality continued after the creation of the EPA. In 1972, bipartisan members of congress introduced amendments to the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act. The original law only protected interstate waterways from pollution, while the new proposed amendments gave the EPA expanded control over water quality. Under these amendments, the EPA could regulate and implement pollution control programs for waterways, set water quality standards, fund sewage treatment plants, and make it illegal to discharge any pollutants into waterways without permission. These amendments became the Clean Water Act.

After a series of revisions, the bill passed in the House and the Senate in 1972. The Nixon administration vetoed the bill after deeming it too costly at $24 billion dollars, but both Democrats and Republicans in Congress overrode his veto. The Clean Water Act became law on October 19, 1972, paving the way for safer practices to protect the nation’s waterways.

Above image: Lake Champlain Studies, Taking Samples From Lapham Bay Area Ekta, 1974. Photograph by Donald Wiedenmayer. Vermont State Archives, University of Vermont Landscape Change Program.

Stafford Campaign Button. Courtesy Vermont Historical Society. Robert Stafford of Vermont

Former Vermont Governor and Senator Robert Stafford led efforts to override Ronald Reagan’s veto of amendments that would strengthen the Clean Water Act in 1987 and secure special funding for Lake Champlain. A staunch environmentalist, Stafford was the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 1980 and fought the Reagan administration to strengthen the Clean Air Act.

Image: Stafford Campaign Button. Courtesy Vermont Historical Society.

What Did the Clean Water Act Do?

The Clean Water Act intended to reduce pollution and make our waters fishable and swimmable. But how does federal legislation do that, specifically?

1. It created a permit system for regulating pollutant discharges in the Waters of the United States, meaning no one or no company could dump pollutants into a waterway without a permit.

Click for more: What are the “Waters of the United States?”

The vague definition of WOTUS in the CWA has ignited debate for years. Some believe it should be broad so the federal government can protect a variety of waterways and wetlands. Others believe it should be narrow so that states themselves can regulate certain waterways if they choose. Three Supreme Court decisions have addressed this issue.

2. It gave the EPA authority to implement pollution control programs and set standards, such as setting wastewater standards for industry.

Click for more: What counts as a pollutant?

Pollutants included dredged spoil, solid waste, incinerator residue, sewage, garbage, sewage sludge, munitions, chemical wastes, biological materials, radioactive materials, heat, wrecked or discarded equipment, rock, sand, cellar dirt and industrial, municipal, and agricultural waste.

3. It maintained existing requirements of states to set water quality standards.

4. It made it illegal for any person to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless they obtained a permit.

Click for more: What is a “point source” of pollution?

In very specific language, “point sources” include any discernible, confined, and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft.

5. It funded the construction of sewage treatment plants.

6. It recognized nonpoint source pollution but did not directly address it.

Click for more: What is a “nonpoint source” of pollution?

“Nonpoint source” is any other source of water that does not meet the legal definition of “point source,” like runoff carried into water through rainfall or snowmelt.

Above image: Student snorkelers explore the New Haven River, part of the Lake Champlain Basin. 

What Didn’t the Clean Water Act Do?

The 1972 Clean Water Act, like many laws, is imperfect. It couldn’t foresee all the possible threats to clean water, and it didn’t include a lot of the things that today we associate with water being clean. So what was not covered in the Clean Water Act?

It did not:

  • Regulate pollution coming from diffuse sources, like runoff
  • Protect drinking water
  • Protect groundwater
  • Regulate pollutants that cause acid rain

Above image: The plants and animals in our ecosystem, like this duckling, rely on us to help protect their homes. Photograph by William H. Majoros, Wikimedia Commons.