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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Clean Water Act: A Summary of the Law

Claudia Copeland
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy

The principal law governing pollution of the nation’s surface waters is the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, or Clean Water Act. Originally enacted in 1948, it was totally revised by amendments in 1972 that gave the act its current shape. The 1972 legislation spelled out ambitious programs for water quality improvement that have since been expanded and are still being implemented by industries and municipalities.

This report presents a summary of the law, describing the essence of the statute without discussing its implementation. Other CRS reports discuss implementation, including CRS Report R41594, Water Quality Issues in the 112
th Congress: Oversight and Implementation, by Claudia Copeland, and numerous products cited in that report.

The Clean Water Act consists of two major parts, one being the provisions which authorize federal financial assistance for municipal sewage treatment plant construction. The other is the regulatory requirements that apply to industrial and municipal dischargers. The act has been termed a technology-forcing statute because of the rigorous demands placed on those who are regulated by it to achieve higher and higher levels of pollution abatement under deadlines specified in the law. Early on, emphasis was on controlling discharges of conventional pollutants (e.g., suspended solids or bacteria that are biodegradable and occur naturally in the aquatic environment), while control of toxic pollutant discharges has been a key focus of water quality programs more recently.

Prior to 1987, programs were primarily directed at point source pollution, wastes discharged from discrete sources such as pipes and outfalls. Amendments to the law in that year authorized measures to address nonpoint source pollution (stormwater runoff from farm lands, forests, construction sites, and urban areas), which is estimated to represent more than 50% of the nation’s remaining water pollution problems.

Under this act, federal jurisdiction is broad, particularly regarding establishment of national standards or effluent limitations. Certain responsibilities are delegated to the states, and the act embodies a philosophy of federal-state partnership in which the federal government sets the agenda and standards for pollution abatement, while states carry out day-to-day activities of implementation and enforcement.

To achieve its objectives, the act is based on the concept that all discharges into the nation’s waters are unlawful, unless specifically authorized by a permit, which is the act’s principal enforcement tool. The law has civil, criminal, and administrative enforcement provisions and also permits citizen suit enforcement.

Financial assistance for constructing municipal sewage treatment plants and certain other types of water quality improvements projects is authorized under title VI. It authorizes grants to capitalize State Water Pollution Control Revolving Funds, or loan programs. States contribute matching funds, and under the revolving loan fund concept, monies used for wastewater treatment construction will be repaid to a state, to be available for future construction in other communities.

Date of Report: March 24, 2011
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: RL30030
Price: $29.95

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