Clean Water Act of 1972

Policy Type Policy
Policy Jurisdiction Federal
Status Passed
Tags Climate Adaptation and Resilience, Conservation and Biodiversity, JEDI, Water Equity

Policy Summary

The Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) set precedent for a number of vital Just Transition legislation in existence today, much like the Clean Air Act of 1955. It set protections for “ambient water quality” and required that states and tribes granted Delegated Authority status must meet or exceed federal regulation standards set by the EPA. It also established permit requirements from the Army Corps of Engineers, and eventually created grant, low-interest loan and technical assistance options for municipal wastewater utilities.

There has been recent rulemaking at the federal level to create clear and durable regulatory definitions for aspects of the CWA which would aid in control of pollution. For instance, in 2020, the Supreme Court established a “functional equivalent” standard for nonpoint source pollution (pollution that does not originate from a single source or point, such as excess fertilizer runoff from agricultural lands) in County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund. This means that repeat polluters from nonpoint source pollution can be required to obtain permitting and abide by regulatory standards applicable to point source pollution (pollution that does originate from a single source, such as smokestacks and discharge pipes).

However, one of the most important provisions of the CWA is the ability of affected communities and individuals to pursue “Citizen Suits” against polluting entities. While it has historically been difficult for affected communities to mount a successful campaign against large-scale polluters and any proceeds from resolved cases generally go to the federal government, not affected communities, there are more and more environmental justice communities that are filing cases against large and repeat CWA offenders. There are also environmental law firms willing to represent these communities pro bono.

Because the CWA is an important part of the foundation of environmental policy in the US, we will continue to add additional information as we grow the Policy Exchange. If you have particular experience with the Clean Water Act, please contact us to contribute.

Summary developed by: TCLP staff with materials from Environmental Law Institute.

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