The Clean Water Act: A Summary of Facts and Protections

Jane Marsh - July 11, 2023

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The Clean Water Act (CWA) is one of many legislations attempting to protect water bodies and quality in the United States. Increasing awareness about the positive environmental impact brings life back to legislation over 50 years old.

Worldwide, water bodies are in danger of pollutants, rising temperatures, and overfishing, to name a few. Efforts like the United Nations’ global sustainability goals and the Paris Agreement attempt to hold countries accountable for their eco-conscious actions. So, how is the US doing regarding its water and its health?

What Is the Clean Water Act (CWA)?

1972 was the year for water justice at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Though efforts started in 1948, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act wasn’t as comprehensive as it needed to be. During its revamp, the CWA forced pollution control and benchmarks for water providers and overseers. 

Suddenly, there were standards for how water should look and how many pollutants it could or couldn’t contain. The influence of chemicals, toxic substances, and physical litter and waste was degrading waterways faster than the water industry could maintain. 

Environmental concerns catalyzed the CWA, but there were also human health issues caused by polluted water running amok. Everything from reproductive matters to neurological ailments was plaguing Americans because of a lack of care. Laypeople had less control over their well-being, and it was up to the government to remedy it.

The government created the CWA to instill a standard for respecting water and relieved the sector. Water treatment plants and utility providers need help providing quality products to their customers, and the CWA helps keep those promises.

But, Can You Release Any Pollutants At All?

Companies with byproducts and hard-to-abate sectors have a lot to manage when it comes to water waste and pollutants, which includes but isn’t limited to:

  • Incinerator byproducts
  • Biological waste
  • Sewage
  • Garbage
  • Sediment and runoff
  • Chemicals

When the CWA was instated, it also administered the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), a permit system. 

It doesn’t allow all pollutants, but it controls them and determines what kind of exits, called point sources, they can come from. It includes easily discernible structures like pipes or tunnels but doesn’t include sources where rainwater runoff in agriculture would otherwise transfer pollutants into waterways. There are exceptional circumstances and additional permits for companies to expel their waste into surface waters.

How Is the CWA Enforced?

The EPA has compliance monitors that ensure relevant bodies comply with best waste management practices for water health. It usually applies to wastewater treatment but also holds fossil fuel companies accountable to ensure they don’t unintentionally instigate oil spills.

The way auditors review compliance is through reviews, inspections, and evaluations. The study is called a discharge monitoring report, the backbone of their quality assurance. It requests information from labs that are running tests on water quality from companies and their point sources. Each year, they test for different types of analytes. 

For example, 2023 is testing whole effluent toxicity (WET), when in other years, this may not be necessary. The randomness of these metrics forces companies to remain comprehensive while auditors save time and money by reviewing fewer data points.

Then, an inspection takes place to suggest to companies how they can improve their compliance adherence and action steps to start implementation. They monitor these discharges:

  • Municipal wastewater 
  • Stormwater management
  • Concentrated animal feeding operations 
  • Biosolids

What Are the Criticisms of the CWA?

The initial creation of the CWA was well-intentioned, but it is old and needs reform. The CWA covers point sources, but what about non-point sources? There are more than point sources, meaning the Clean Water Act doesn’t cover the majority of pollutant sources for waterways. These are only a few examples:

  • Septic tanks
  • Industrial or agricultural runoff
  • Byproducts from mining
  • Chemicals from lawns and grass treatment

These pollutant sources grow in severity as populations increase worldwide. Water treatment plants are already struggling to perfect their operations, despite help from Industry 4.0 tech. New contaminants always show up, and research and development for optimal ways to extract and purify them are still a work in progress. 

It’s not just new contaminants, either — access to information has made citizens more aware of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as forever chemicals, alongside the growing concern of microplastics. With citizen concerns rising, how can water treatment plants keep up with scarce funding but increased hovering? 

Political stability severely impacts the potential for the CWA to change for the better, and the tensions between American political parties in the last several decades could prove detrimental to its progress.

Is it the Same as the Clean Water Rule?

The Clean Water Rule is a different order that the EPA passed long after the CWA’s inception, in addition to the CWA’s delegations. In 2015, the EPA needed to explain which water bodies the government protects. There was miscommunication before this clarification, as regulators weren’t sure if habitats like wetlands or streams counted. 

These vague descriptions cost countless dollars and wasted hours in management, but it’s blunter now, especially in discussing gray areas like tributaries. Professionals argued for their protection, as bogs and fens are some of the most quickly disappearing habitats on the planet. Yet, they’re integral to biodiversity and a litmus test for comprehensive environmental well-being.

The Clean Water Act Is a Starting Point

The CWA was a kickstart into more holistic water respect and treatment. Before, it was easy to dump trash and pollutants into the water without considering it as an essential part of the planet. It made companies reflect on their waste disposal in a new way, making waterways an improper disposal ground. 

Advocacy will bring the CWA into a new age, where it encompasses more exit points for pollutants and considers new threats, such as microplastics, that were previously under-researched. The revision of the CWA will catalyze nations to reevaluate their environmental litigations and regulations for a more aggressive, positive ecological effort.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.