50 Years of Ocean & Coastal Conservation: Clean Water Act

Kids swimming in the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. Photo credit: David J. Ruck/NOAA

In 1972, the United States enacted a wave of landmark legislation to protect and sustain the ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes, including the amendments to the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act. These Acts fundamentally changed how the United States managed marine, Great Lakes, and coastal environments. Join us at Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2022 to learn more about the impact and legacy of each of these Acts and celebrate 50 years of ocean and coastal conservation!

The Clean Water Act is considered the most powerful legislative tool for safeguarding water quality in the United States. The Clean Water Act established a basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into U.S. waters and regulates quality standards for surface waters. The goal of the Clean Water Act is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” The Clean Water Act protects our drinking water, outdoor recreation opportunities like fishing and swimming, and the aesthetic, recreational, and economic value of waters, like our national marine sanctuaries.

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act, enacted in 1948, was the first major U.S. law to address water pollution and laid the foundation for the Clean Water Act. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio lit on fire due to pollutants in the water, causing $50,000 worth of damages and generating media attention for the issue of water quality. Amid growing public concern and awareness, Congress introduced and passed the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to implement pollution control programs through the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), such as setting industry wastewater and maintaining national water quality criteria. The Act’s guidelines define three broad categories of pollutants: conventional (sanitary wastes), toxic (disease-causing agents and sludge), and non-conventional. The Clean Water Act helps protect rivers, streams, and wetlands through two permitting programs- for point source pollution (discrete conveyances such as pipes or manmade ditches like such as discharges from a factory or wastewater treatment plant), and for the discharge of dredge and fill materials (for example from construction activities). The Act funded the construction of sewage treatment plants and made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters without a NPDES permit issued by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The EPA also regulates waste streams from the offshore oil and gas industries to prevent harm to the marine environment and assess the effect of proposed permitted discharges on marine ecosystems.

The Act has successfully increased the percentage of fishable and swimmable waters in the country, helped to hold polluters accountable, provided funding for communities to help clean up damaged habitat, and prevented 700 billion pounds of toxic pollutants from entering our nation’s waters annually. In recent years, there have been attempts to weaken the impact of the Clean Water Act and reverse decades of protections. However, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have signaled their continued commitment to protecting our national waters and ensuring clean water for future generations.