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Environmental Legislation: Clean Water Act

Environmental Legislation

Clean Water Act (CWA) is the legislation piece of the United States that determines water quality standards, serves as a basis for the enactment of pollution control programs, and regulates the presence of contaminants in surface water. The law covers both point and non-point pollution sources. The former involves the presence of a point source (e.g. a pipe for dumping liquid waste from a factory into a nearby body of water or a vessel transporting the contaminant) while the latter does not have a single entry point and is, therefore, harder to track down (e.g. chemicals used for fertilization of large areas and stormwater runoff from both urban and industrial sources). Later amendments of the law addressed several specific areas, such as pollution risks from potential oil spills. Importantly, the CWA was the first environmental law that allowed any citizen to file a suit against a person who committed an environmental regulation violation or an Environmental Protection Agency in the case where it failed to perform its duty determined by CWA.

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Legislation Passing Process

The law is one of the most long-standing modern pieces of environmental legislation pieces in the United States. It was initially enacted in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. In 1972, several important amendments and expansions were introduced to it, after which it was enacted in its final form and under its current name. The most significant amendments included the framework for pollutant discharge regulation on a national level, the authority of the EPA to implement programs that control the pollution of freshwater, expansion of previously existing water quality standards to include all existing surface bodies of water and establishing funding opportunities for the construction of sewage treatment plants. The legislation was reworked several times to introduce amendments, with the most significant being the improvement of grant reception process in 1981, the 1987 amendments to the regulation of toxic waste discharge and the introduction of the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund, and the improvement of regulations associated with oil spills in 1990. The most recent amendments add several details to the ongoing initiative of restoring the Great Lakes.

Arguments For and Against the Legislation

The enactment of the legislation was largely a response to the abysmal state of the bodies of water in the United States in the seventies. Many rivers and lakes were contaminated to the point where at least one – Cuyahoga River – became combustible. Therefore, the enactment was a mostly positive development. It introduced a definitive legal restriction on the dumping of waste into navigable waters, enabled EPA to create new standards and initiatives, and accounted for previously uncontrolled areas, such as non-point solutions. However, it should be mentioned that in its initial form, the legislation piece was vague enough to permit over-regulation in some areas. Specifically, the artificial drains and ponds used in the agricultural sector became subject to jurisdiction determination.

Effects of Legislation

While the exact effect of the legislation is difficult to pinpoint due to its complex and diverse nature, it can be said that on average some progress was made in slowing down the rate of pollution of all freshwater bodies in the U.S. Also, it empowered individuals to participate in the legal enforcement of environmental protection.


In my opinion, the effect of the legislation, while observable, is not sufficient enough to be considered successful. Most of the water in the U.S. is still below the acceptable level of quality. On many occasions, the rate of change is important for the survival of certain species and the preservation of the ecosystem. Therefore, while important as a starting point, the CWA is currently not effective enough.

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