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Early Evolution of the Clean Water Act in the United States

Posted by Jenn Collins on March 15, 2021

Born in response to disaster and molded over generations, the Clean Water Act has long been a source of environmental pride within the United States. How did this ground breaking legislation come into being? To really understand the Clean Water Act and its importance, we took a look back at its history below.

In 1948, the industrial and urban development driven by World War II had resulted in air and water pollution on a scale never seen before. The environmental destruction spurred Congress to take action and the U.S. introduced the groundbreaking new law called, “The Federal Water Pollution Control Act” (FWPCA). In the decades leading up to this, legislators in Congress had made numerous, unsuccessful attempts to pass similar bills addressing the issues of water pollution in the U.S.

FWPCA authorized the Surgeon General, in cooperation with federal, state, and local entities, to establish programs for eliminating or reducing the pollution of interstate waters and tributaries.  It was also used to help improve sanitary conditions of surface and ground waters.  Additionally, the Act authorized the Federal Works Administration to support states, municipalities and interstate agencies in constructing water treatment plants that adequately treated discharge water and other wastes into interstate waters or tributaries.

Although it was a needed first step, in practice, the FWPCA proved to be extremely cumbersome to enforce since it only provided limited authority to the federal government and did not generally prohibit pollution. By the late 1960s, the American public had learned enough to rank the environmental and water pollution a growing concern.

In June 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first released as a series in The New Yorker, later becoming a bestseller.  Silent Spring brought the message of the risks associated with DDT use to the American public. It helped to set the stage for the environmental movement that occurred in the U.S. in the 1970s. 

In 1969, TIME magazine released images and articles of the Cuyahoga River burning near downtown Cleveland, the tenth blaze witnessed on the waterway in the past century! Cleveland had been an industrial powerhouse for over a century and, as the factories and population grew, the Cuyahoga River received more and more industrial discharge in the form of oil and industrial solvents. Since the drinking water source for the population was Lake Erie, pollution of the Cuyahoga had been viewed as a “cost of industry.” A little known fact about the TIME story was that the 1969 fire was only ablaze for 30 minutes and no actual photos of the event were captured. Instead, TIME featured shocking photos from a much more devastating fire that occurred in 1952.

1969 was a busy environmental disaster year that included the Santa Barbara oil spill in California. At the time, this event was the most devastating oil spill in U.S. history, with an estimated 3 million gallons of oil released into the Pacific Ocean. The spill resulted in a 35-mile long oil slick off the coast of California and killed thousands of birds, fish, and marine mammals. With the decade’s advent of televisions in homes, the public was now able to see both media photos and television footage of the oil-slicked animals and dead dolphins resulting from this tragedy. There is no doubt that the wide-reaching coverage and ability for Americans to see such environmental tragedies played a role in spurring the environmental movement further.

It didn’t take long for the growing public outcry to push legislative changes, including sweeping amendments to the FWPCA. These amendments incorporated consideration of storage to regulate streamflow, the Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966, the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970 which lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and disassembled the Federal Water Quality Administration, as well as the restoration and maintenance of the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s water.

A 1972 amendment essentially rewrote the FWPCA and is seen as one of the most notable developments to water protection. This amendment, the Clean Water Act (CWA), established a clear regulatory system for discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters; granted EPA authority for pollution control program implementation; set and retained water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters, and funded the construction of sewage treatment plants. 

A 1977 amendment to the CWA included: the development of Best Management Practices (BMPs) and the Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) assisting States in developing their own BMPs as part of their water pollution programs; completion of the National Wetlands Inventory by December 31, 1981; approving the Corps of Engineers to issue general permits on any activities that are similar in nature, cause only minimal environmental effects when performed separately, and only have a minimal impact on the environment for state, regional, and national entities; exemption of various activities from the dredge and fill prohibition; transferring of the regulatory program to the states; requiring the development for agreements to minimize duplication and delays in permit issuance.

The last major amendment to the CWA included the continuation of the Chesapeake Bay program, establishment of Great Lakes National program office within the EPA and NOAA, state requirement to develop strategies for toxic cleanup in waters where the application of BAT (Best of Available Technology) discharge standards are not sufficient to meet state water quality standards and support public health, and the requirement of the EPA to study and monitor water quality effects attributable to the impoundment of waters by dams.

The CWA’s actions to protect U.S. waterways and regulation of surface and ground water set the stage for massive changes in the protection of our waterways. As environmental scientists, our own work in water monitoring and overall water quality is still tied to the early history of the CWA and it serves as a reminder to us about the critical importance of our daily work.

Firemen stand on a bridge over the Cuyahoga River to spray water on the tug Arizona, after an oil slick on the river caught fire in 1952. TIME Magazine Photo

A 1967 photograph, showing old cars used as rip-rap along the banks of the Cuyahoga River to protect it from erosion, is held in front the foliage-filled landscape of the river in 2006.
Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer/AP Photo
Cleaning oil-slicked animals in the aftermath of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Los Angeles Times