History of the Clean Water Act

lake louiseThe Clean Water Act (CWA) as we know it has a longer history than you might think. The first version of the CWA was passed in 1948 under President Truman. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed to address the concerns surrounding water pollution and contaminants. However, in 1972, public awareness and concern for water pollution and control necessitated amending the original Act, which resulted in the Clean Water Act of 1972.


The 1972 amendments:

  • Established the basic structure for regulating pollutants and discharges into the water of the United States
  • Gave the EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs, such as setting wastewater standards for the industry
  • Maintained all existing requirements to set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters
  • Made it unlawful for any person to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit is obtained
  • Funded the construction of sewage treatment plants under the construction grants program
  • And recognized the need for planning to address the critical problems posed by nonpoint source pollution



But the amendments did not stop there. In 1981 the CWA was revised again under President Reagan to streamline the municipal construction grants process, which improved the capabilities of the treatment plants built under the program. Then, also under President Reagan in 1987, the municipal construction grant program was replaced with the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund, or the more commonly known “Clean Water State Revolving Fund.” The updated funding strategy specifically addressed water quality needs by building on partnerships between states and the EPA.


Over the years, many other laws have changed parts of the Clean Water Act. Title I of the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act of 1990, for example, put into place parts of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978, signed by the U.S. and Canada, where the two nations agreed to reduce certain toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes. That law required EPA to establish water quality criteria for the Great Lakes addressing 29 toxic pollutants with maximum levels that are safe for humans, wildlife, and aquatic life. The law also required the EPA to help the States implement the criteria on a specific schedule.


Today, the CWA regulates both discharges into US waters and the quality standards for surface waters. For more information on CWA compliance assistance and compliance monitoring, simply click the links provided.