The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the foundation for water quality protection in the United States, regulating discharges of sewage and industrial pollutants into waterways and establishing water quality standards for the nation’s rivers, streams, lakes, bays, and estuaries.
The CWA began as the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, which Congress transformed into the modern CWA with significant amendments in 1972, 1977, and 1987.
The CWA seeks to restore the integrity of the nation’s waters to fishable and swimmable quality, and to ultimately eliminate pollutant discharges from point sources into navigable waters – a lofty Congressional goal if ever there was one. The 1972 Amendments established the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), a nationwide permitting program which regulates water pollution by setting effluent limits and monitoring requirements on factories, sewage treatment plants, and other facilities that discharge pollutants into U.S. waterways through point sources (such as pipes, ditches, or other “discrete conveyances”). These limits include uniform national technology-based limitations set by EPA for various industry categories and for sewage treatment plants, as well as water quality-based limitations, set by the states and/or EPA, designed to achieve ambient water quality standards. The CWA also places limits on pollution discharged by industries to sewage treatment systems.
Like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act authorizes private citizens and environmental groups to enforce the law when EPA and the state fail to take appropriate enforcement action.