United States Clean Water Act

The precursor to the U.S. Clean Water Act (USCWA) of 1972 was the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. While the USCWA was transformative at the time and even with major amendments in 1977 and 1987, it continues to fall short of adequately protecting U.S. water quality for a range of reasons. The USCWA provides a permitting structure for regulating discharge of pollutants as well as regulating water quality standards in surface waters. The USCWA aims to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

The USCWA provides permits, via the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), to businesses and municipalities that allow specific amounts of pollutants to be discharged into surface waters. More specifically, the USCWA has made it unlawful to discharge a pollutant from a point source (e.g., pipe, ditch, sewer, vessel) into navigable waters, unless a permit is obtained. Some stormwater discharges are included under an NPDES permit including:

  • Discharge associated with industrial activity
  • Discharge from a large or medium municipal separate storm sewer system, or
  • Discharge which EPA or the state/tribe determines contributes to a violation of a water quality standard, or which is a significant contributor of pollutants to waters of the United States

However, other types of stormwater are not regulated, and lead to significant pollution in waterways. For example, when combined sewer overflows are in use, non-regulated or unmanaged stormwater has the potential to become a severe environmental problem in that municipality. One of the greatest omissions in the USCWA is that non-point sources (e.g., runoff from fields and lawns, paved areas and clear cuts, septic tanks, CAFO runoff, and abandoned mines) of pollutants are not regulated. Because of this, non-point source pollution is worse than even industrial pollution. The act also regulates national and local pretreatment standards, by requiring industrial users to pretreat wastewater that is discharged to publicly owned treatment plants, to ultimately protect the quality of sludge generated by the treatment plants. The act regulates sewage sludge and disposal to ensure certain standards for land application, surface disposal, incineration, and disposal in a municipal landfill.

While the USCWA has succeeded in reducing the amount of pollutants discharged into surface waters, as well as preventing massive losses of wetlands, it has been plagued by limited funding and inability to adequately enforce regulations. Nearly two-thirds of the United States’ coastal rivers and bays are moderately to severely impaired by nutrient pollution; resulting in eutrophication, dead zones, and harmful algal blooms. These events can lead to fish kills, mass-death events of marine mammals and seabirds, and the loss of seagrass, kelp, and coral reef habitats. In contrast to the WFD, this regulatory framework does not take a holistic approach, but rather breaks the system down into parts; which ultimately limits positive outcomes. For example, the water quality standards program emphasizes water chemistry over environmental flow; which compromises the ecological integrity of the system.

Additionally, with regard to identifying wastewater pollution, the key indicator is Enterococcus. In places like Hawai’i, Enterococcus is found naturally in soils, therefore it is challenging to use this indicator to identify whether pollution from human waste is present or not (Mezzacapo, 2020). The USCWA is in need of a major update and overhaul, to address both the ageing infrastructure of wastewater management in the US, as well as the lack of inclusion of non-point source pollution. Much of the challenge ahead will come down to politics, as the US continues to struggle to protect its natural resources and environmental health, due to significant pressure from anti-regulatory efforts.