Clean water is far from a guarantee, even in the United States. The quality of water in your community depends on federal requirements carefully designed to both protect the environment and keep water clean. If not for rules like the Clean Water Act, municipalities and states would all be allowed to have different water safety standards – or no standards at all.
The Clean Water Act was first enacted in 1972 and made several key amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. In the EPA’s own language, the new Act was created “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters by preventing point and nonpoint pollution sources, providing assistance to publicly owned treatment works for the improvement of wastewater treatment, and maintaining the integrity of wetlands.“ This very broad scope was backed up by a long series of standards for drinking and agricultural water sources.
In its natural state, water is subject to many different and often dangerous contaminants. Surface water can be contaminated by acid rain, pesticide runoff, and industrial waste of all kinds. Groundwater, more commonly used for drinking, can become tainted by pathogens, landfill leachate, septic system leaks, and hazardous toxins that are disposed of correctly. While water in the United States is rarely fatal to drink, such contaminants can cause nausea, lung irritation, rashes, and a host of chronic effects including liver, kidney, and nervous system damage.
These containments and the potential health hazards are what make the Clean Water Act necessary. First, the bill created national standards to ensure all states were prioritizing water quality. Prior to the 1972 change, states managed their own water standards, but many aquatic ecosystems across the country were left vulnerable. The Clean Water Act included key environmental legislation that showed the federal government was willing to become involved eco-protection. Second, the Act also updated regulations for U.S. farms and how they used irrigation water. Finally, the Act specified methods to maintain and restore aquatic habitats – not just lakes and reservoirs, but oceans, seashores, and all types of watersheds.
As time passed, industries became accustomed to meeting effluent limitations and water quality requirements set out by the laws. For example, industrial firms are now accustomed to obtaining permits for all types of pollutant discharge.
Over time, the Act has evolved and become more complex as it incorporates additions like the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act of 1990. However, the core purpose of the Act remained to protect environments and drinking water. When you pour a glass, or take a shower, or wash dishes, the water you use is safe because of the regulations the Clean Water Act set up.
Options for Water Care
If you believe that a nearby river or lake has become polluted, you can contact your state environmental agency and see if the body of water is on the “303(d)” list, a Clean Water Act list of polluted water bodies that states are required to clean up, sometimes with earmarked federal funds. Volunteer programs like the Beachkeeper and Waterkeeper groups help by voluntarily testing waters and working to keep pollution laws enforced.
The 1996 additions to the Safe Drinking Water Act, a partner to the Clean Water act, requires states to have Source Water Assessments for all drinking water sources. If you think your drinking water has become polluted, you can call your state environmental department and request to see the latest Assessment. If the Assessment has missed critical information, you can notify the community and contact local officials to deal with the problem.
The Clean Water Act remains vital to the health of Americans no matter where your water comes from. Water problems persist despite the law – in 2009, an Associated Press study showed that 41 million Americans were exposed to contaminated drinking water. Current legislation pinpoints 91 dangerous contaminants, but more may be added in the future as research continues. Fortunately the Clean Water Act is a living, adapting resource that helps protect communities across the country no matter what new contaminants surface.