Legislative Activity

The first substantive water pollution legislation in the United States, the Water Pollution Control Act, was passed in 1948. In 1956, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, commonly called the Clean Water Act (CWA), provided the first long-term control of water pollution. The act has been amended several times. A key amendment in 1972 establishes a national goal of zero discharge by 1985. This concept refers to the complete elimination of all water pollutants from navigable waters of the United States. This amendment also called upon the EPA to establish effluent limitations for industries and make money available to construct sewage treatment plants. The amendments in 1977 direct the EPA to examine less common water pollutants, notably toxic organic compounds.

This legislation has resulted in the development of a complex series of water quality standards. These standards define the levels of specific pollutants in water that protect the public health and welfare and define the levels of treatment that must be achieved before contaminated water is released. The most notable of these standards are the water quality criteria set by the EPA. These criteria describe the levels of specific pollutants that ambient water can contain and still be acceptable for one of the following categories:

• Class A—water contact recreation, including swimming

• Class B—able to support fish and wildlife

• Class D—agricultural and industrial use

Water quality standards are set by the states and are subject to approval by the EPA. These standards define the conditions necessary to maintain the quality of water for its intended use. Per a provision of the CWA, existing uses of a body of water must be maintained (i.e., uses that downgrade water quality resulting in a downgraded use category are not allowed).

The primary enforcement mechanism established by the CWA, as amended in 1977, is the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The NPDES is administered by the states with EPA oversight. Facilities that discharge directly into waters of the United States must obtain NPDES permits.

Under NPDES, permits for constructing and operating new sources and existing sources are subject to different standards. Discharge permits are issued with limits on the quantity and quality of effluents. These limits are based on a case-by-case evaluation of potential environmental impacts. Discharge permits are designed as an enforcement tool, with the ultimate goal of meeting ambient water quality standards.

Most states have assumed primary authority for the enforcement and permit activities regulated under the CWA. In those states that have not assumed primacy, discharges to surface waters require two permits, one from the EPA under CWA and one from the state under its regulations. In addition, such discharges are frequently regulated by local governments.

The EPA does not have permit responsibility under section 404 of the CWA, nor does it have responsibility for discharges associated with marine interests. Consequently, other federal water programs affect water quality. Table 4.5.1 summarizes selected regulations promulgated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, and the EPA.

Figure 4.5.1 shows the relationship of water quality criteria, water quality standards, effluent guidelines, effluent limitations and permit conditions.

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