The Implementation of the Clean Water Act

The federal Clean Water Act is a collection of laws passed by Congress that together form the principal federal law on preventing water pollution. This includes permanent lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, and other nonintermittent bodies of water. Passed in 1972, over the veto of President Nixon, the act was later amended in 1977 and 1987, and is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, who has rulemaking and enforcement powers under the Clean Water Act. The Act addresses surface water contamination, focusing on wastewater treatment and pollution sources affecting navigable waters of the United States.

The Act encourages the EPA to work with state and local governments to reduce pollution to surface waters from wastewater treatment plants. Wastewater, that is, sewage and greywater, was often minimally treated, if treated at all, before being dumped into a nearby water outlet, such as a river or lake. As sources of freshwater, this sewage dumping fouled the surface water that other communities were using to drink. In the 1800s, this led to cholera epidemics, and later to water that was more expensive to treat before drinking. So the Act allows the EPA to provide grants of just over 50 percent of a project’s cost to local jurisdictions to improve or build new wastewater treatment systems. The balance is typically paid for by state and local government. By substantially reducing the capital cost of new plants, the Act encourages local governments to better their treatment systems.

For other surface water pollution types, the Act looks at point sources of pollution and requires permits from the EPA to discharge anything into surface waters. Point sources are individual effluent flows directly into a body of water. This could be the wastewater effluent in a treatment plant or direct discharge from industrial sources, like manufacturing or mining. In exchange for the permit, the permit holder must meet certain minimum standards for the treatment of the discharged waste. Failure to meet these requirements or obtain a permit before discharge can lead to civil fines and criminal penalties.

The final leg of the three-legged stool is the management of nonpoint pollution sources. Nonpoint sources are those less obvious but include municipal stormwater runoff, agricultural stormwater runoff, and industrial stormwater. The Clean Water Act addresses nonpoint pollution sources by giving the EPA authority to make grants and regulations affecting these runoff sources. For instance, the EPA and states have enacted total maximum daily load (TMDL) for certain nutrient categories in runoff. Further, the EPA can make grants to local jurisdictions to improve stormwater treatment before it is released into surface water bodies.

In the Clean Water Act, Congress and the EPA have a wide swath of tools available for reducing pollutant release into surface water bodies. These include economic incentives, through grants, to take action reducing pollution. And it also includes economic disincentives, through fines, to corral those who are polluting waterways. Finally, for the worst offenders, the EPA can seek criminal penalties include prison. Like many environmental problems, surface water pollution is best approached through a blend of incentives and disincentives to encourage proper behavior.