Water Pollution Legislation
Water pollution has been an important issue in United States politics since 1948, when president Harry Truman signed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. This law set the precedent for future government involvement in water protection by addressing the health effects of water pollution and sewage disposal. Twenty-four years later Richard Nixon signed major amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and in 1977 it was officially renamed the Clean Water Act (CWA).
Clean Water Act: Introduction
The Clean Water Act requires that state regulate and prevent pollution of watersheds from nonpoint sources. A watershed is a land area that drains into a body of water such as a river. While point pollution, for example a chimney or a car, enters the environment at one location, nonpoint pollution sources cover a large land area. Examples include crop fields and streets. Nonpoint pollution sources are more difficult to identify and control because there is no single source of pollution that can be easily recognized. Under the Clean Water Act, states must develop plans to protect their watersheds from nonpoint pollution.
This act also requires waste-treatment facilities to reduce or, if possible, eliminate pollutants in any substances they release into the environment. In order for pollutant release to be legal, point sources, such as waste-treatment facilities, must have a permit. In addition, the CWA has set a standard involving the removal of pollutants from water before it enters sewage systems. Finally, states must monitor freshwater lakes in an effort to render them "fishable" and "swimmable" under Clean Water Act legislation.
Amendments of the CWA
Various amendments have been made to the Clean Water Act since its enactment. In 1977, both states and the EPA were given more authority to regulate water pollution discharge. This reflects an attempt to balance power between the federal government, individual states, and the EPA, a trend that can be seen in a variety of environmental legislation. Four years later a new president, Ronald Reagan, brought with him a different approach to water protection. His amendments, passed in 1981, weakened the Clean Water Act by contributing less money toward the construction of wastewater treatment facilities. In 1987, the act took a step in the opposite direction as funding was provided for the protection of estuaries and control of nonpoint pollution. Amendments to the CWA were proposed in 1995, but were defeated by the Clinton administration. These changes would have relaxed demands on pollutors to meet certain cleanup standards.
Success of the CWA
Since 1972 the Clean Water Act has been a relative success, though not to the extent as originally planned. In 1972, the act stated that its goal was to have all navigable United States waters "fishable" and "swimmable" by 1983 and to eliminate all pollutant release into said waters by 1985. While these goals have not been met, the percentage of fishable and swimmable U.S. rivers and lakes has increased from 36% in 1972 to 62% in 1998. Also, 74% of the population was served by sewage treatment plants in 1998, as opposed to 32% twenty-six years before.
While the CWA has had many triumphs, 100,000 tons of toxic industrial wastes are still dumped into rivers annually. 40% of surface and groundwater is deemed unsafe. Less than 2% of U.S. streams are considered "high quality" under CWA regulations. Fish caught in over 1400 waterways cannot be eaten due to toxic substances. Clearly, the Clean Water Act has room for improvement.
Strengthening the Clean Water Act
Many proposals have been made as to how the Clean Water Act can be strengthened:
- One idea involves increasing the funding and authority of the act in order to better control non point sources of pollution.
- Programs that regulate toxic water pollution could also be improved.
- Another suggestion is to allow certain states to manage parts of the act such that federal control would be loosened. Only states with good environmental track records would be allowed to do so.
- Lastly, citizens could have the right to file lawsuits against violators of the CWA to ensure that laws would be better enforced.
The CWA and the Bush Administration
Recently, however, the Bush administration has not been aiming to advance the Clean Water Act. Instead, it has issued a policy entailing the removal of protection for small bodies of water that seem to be isolated from larger rivers and lakes. Even if these "isolated" waters are, indeed, isolated, removing them from CWA jurisdiction would still have adverse effects on human health and the environment. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, "Failure to afford protection to 'isolated' wetlands will inevitably lead to increased draining and filling which will negatively impact ground waters and in-stream flows. Polluted ground water and the disruption of stream's hydrologic cycles mean increased costs for the general public, a diminished biosphere, and increased threats to rare and endangered species of all types."
The Clean Water Act: Conclusion
The Clean Water Act, in its pursuit of water pollution prevention, has succeeded in some aspects while failing in others. Ultimately, it constitutes a vital piece of environmental legislation, one that, despite its shortcomings, has taken steps towards improving the condition of the nation's water, and should continue to do so into the future.Thinkquest Team "Fish," March 2005, Disclaimer and copyright information