The Clean Water Act (CWA) is a federal law in the United States that was enacted in 1972 to protect the country’s surface water resources, including lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. The law regulates the discharge of pollutants into the nation’s surface waters, including navigable waters, tributaries, and wetlands. The CWA is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Clean Water Act History and Amendment
The Clean Water Act (CWA) was first passed by the U.S. Congress in 1972 as a comprehensive federal law to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s surface waters, including lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. The CWA was the first federal law to address water pollution on a national scale.
Since its original passage, the CWA has been amended several times to strengthen its provisions and to address new pollution sources and emerging issues. Some of the key amendments to the CWA include:
- The 1977 Amendments: The 1977 amendments broadened the scope of the CWA to include regulation of groundwater and to strengthen the NPDES program.
- The 1987 Amendments: The 1987 amendments added provisions to address nonpoint sources of pollution, such as agricultural runoff and stormwater, and to protect wetlands.
- The 2020 Amendments: The 2020 amendments to the CWA, signed into law in December 2020, were made to strengthen the protections for wetlands and ephemeral streams, and to clarify the jurisdiction of the federal government under the CWA.
The CWA has several key provisions, including:
- National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES): The CWA established the NPDES program, which requires any point source (such as a pipe or ditch) that discharges pollutants into surface waters to obtain a permit and to meet specific discharge limits and other requirements.
- Toxics and Hazardous Substances: The CWA authorizes the EPA to regulate the discharge of toxic pollutants and hazardous substances into surface waters.
- Nonpoint Sources: The CWA also regulates nonpoint sources of pollution, which are diffuse sources of pollution that come from many different sources, such as agricultural runoff and stormwater.
- Wetlands: The CWA also protects wetlands, which are important habitats for wildlife and play an important role in filtering pollutants and reducing flooding.
- State Water Quality Standards: The CWA requires states to establish water quality standards for their surface waters and to develop plans to achieve and maintain those standards.
- Enforcement: The CWA provides for enforcement of its provisions, including penalties for violations of discharge limits and other requirements, and citizen suits to enforce the law.
The CWA has been amended several times since its original passage in 1972, most recently in 1977, 1987, and in 2020. The CWA continues to be one of the most important federal laws for protecting the nation’s surface water resources and ensuring that they are safe for swimming, fishing, and other uses.
Clean Water Act Responsibilities and Accountabilities
The Clean Water Act (CWA) assigns several responsibilities and accountabilities to various entities in order to protect the nation’s surface water resources and to ensure that they are safe for swimming, fishing, and other uses. These include:
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA is responsible for administering the CWA and for implementing its provisions, including the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program and the regulation of toxic pollutants and hazardous substances. The EPA also sets water quality standards for pollutants and develops strategies to achieve these standards.
- States: The CWA requires states to establish water quality standards for their surface waters and to develop plans to achieve and maintain those standards. The states are also responsible for issuing NPDES permits to dischargers, and enforcing the CWA’s provisions.
- Dischargers: Anyone who discharges pollutants into surface waters must obtain an NPDES permit and meet specific discharge limits and other requirements. They are responsible for compliance with the terms of their permit, and for monitoring and reporting on their discharges.
- Local Governments: Local governments are responsible for controlling nonpoint sources of pollution and protecting wetlands.
- General Public: The CWA gives the general public the right to file citizen suits against alleged violators of the CWA.
- S. Army Corps of Engineers: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the regulation of activities in wetlands, including the permitting of activities such as filling, dredging and other types of development.
- Compliance: All entities are responsible for ensuring compliance with the CWA and its regulations, and for cooperating with the EPA and the states during investigations and enforcement actions.
- Record keeping: All entities are required to maintain records of compliance with the CWA and its regulations and to make them available for inspection and monitoring.
Clean Water Act Sanctions, Remedies
The Clean Water Act (CWA) provides several sanctions and remedies for violations of its provisions, including:
- Civil penalties: The CWA authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to impose civil penalties on any person who violates the CWA, its regulations, or the terms of an NPDES permit. Penalties can range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars per violation, depending on the circumstances.
- Criminal penalties: The CWA also authorizes criminal penalties for certain types of violations, including knowing violations and those that result in an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or the environment. Penalties can include fines and imprisonment.
- Compliance orders: The EPA may issue compliance orders to violators, requiring them to take specific actions to come into compliance with the CWA and its regulations.
- Injunctions: The EPA may seek court injunctions to prevent or remedy violations of the CWA and its regulations.
- Citizen suits: The CWA provides for citizen suits, which allows private citizens or groups to sue alleged violators of the CWA and its regulations.
- Pollution abatement: The CWA requires violators to take appropriate action to abate the pollution, this can include the installation of pollution control equipment, changes in operations, and other measures to reduce or eliminate discharges of pollutants.
- Debarment: The EPA may debar any person from bidding on future federal contracts if they are found to have violated the CWA.
These sanctions and remedies are intended to deter and prevent misconduct by violators and to ensure that the nation’s surface water resources are protected and that they are safe for swimming, fishing, and other uses.