The objectives of the Clean Water Act are to restore and maintain the integrity of the nation's waters. Specific goals of Act are to eliminate discharge of pollutants; make water quality fishable and swimmable; and to reach zero discharge, that is to eliminate any discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts. The target dates set for these goals came in the mid-1980s. However, even though compliance has not been reached, the goals remain the same.
When the CLEAN WATER ACT took effect, only 33% of the Nation's waters were fishable and swimmable. We were losing 460,000 acres of wetlands annually. Soil erosion into lakes and rivers was estimated at 2.25 billion tons. Phosphorus and nitrogen levels were high. Only 85 million people were served by sewage treatment.
Since that time, 66% of the nation's waterways are fishable/swimmable. The amount of wetland reduction has decreased to about 70,000 to 90,000 acres annually. Soil erosion is down to 1.5 billion tons. Phosphorus and nitrogen levels are reduced, and 173 million people are served by sewage treatment.
The first water legislation was the Rivers and Harbors Act, which prohibited unauthorized obstruction or alteration of the nation's waters. This was followed by the Refuse Act, which prohibited discharge of refuse that would affect the course, location, condition, or physical capacity of navigable waters. It mandated comprehensive programs to reduce pollution in interstate waters. Both of these laws were passed in 1899.
The Water Pollution Control Act was passed in 1948. It serves as the regulatory framework upon which subsequent laws have been developed. In 1956, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) was passed. In it, water quality standards were based on desired uses of receiving waters: drinking water, recreation, navigation, body contact, and fishing. The Clean Water Restoration Act (1965) was the first to require states to set standards for interstate waters that would be used to determine actual pollution levels. These laws were generally ineffective due to political, technical and legal weaknesses; designated uses designed to attract industry; lack of information on effects of industrial discharges; and inadequate consideration of aquatic ecosystems.
The 1972 amendments, the Clean Water Act incorporated the philosophy that no one has the right to pollute. The only acceptable reason for water pollution might be the limits of control technologies. For the first time, Nationally Uniform Industrial Limits were established. It was also this law, which established the system of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permits. Also for the first time, secondary treatment was required for publicly owned treatment works (POTWs). The Act established a Construction Grants Program to upgrade community sewage treatment systems. The Act also established a watershed management system, which reflected the country's river basins and regions. Enforcement authority was vested in the administrator of EPA.