Editorial: 50 years later, the Clean Water Act is under assault
Editor’s note: This is the third in our series examining the intersection of the environment and the law. Previous posts featured the Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Environmental Defense Fund v. EPA and the federal government’s failure to regulate pollutants such as mercury and lead. The following post examines the Clean Water Act, which was created in 1972 and is considered one of the most important environmental laws in the country.
In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that water quality standards for lakes, rivers and streams were constitutional. After 40 years of delay, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took the unprecedented step of setting a regulatory schedule for the country’s waterways.
And while this may have seemed like the end of the world for citizens who love clean water and healthy rivers and streams, there was a silver lining. The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the most important environmental law in the country. The CWA makes it illegal to discharge pollutants into waters that “may” interfere with fish and wildlife, and then requires permits for discharge violations. The CWA was conceived by Congress as a tool to protect people, nature and water resources, by improving public health and protecting fish and wildlife.
The CWA’s original provisions, passed in 1972 and signed into law in 1972, are fairly simple. The CWA says “navigable waters of the United States” means any of the waters found inside the United States or any stretch of water that is shared with, and that could affect, the interstate or international boundaries of the United States. The CWA applies to “tidal waters of the United States,” which are those that move around in response to the movement of the tides.
The CWA establishes four main types of water quality criteria:
the National Water Quality Standards, which set water quality limits for pollutants. The Clean Water Act defines “water quality” as “the presence in the environment of pollutants�