History of the Clean Water Act

Our nation’s commitment to protect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our waters began in 1899 with the Rivers and Harbors Act. It furthered in 1948 with the establishment of the Federal Pollution Control Act and then transformed into the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. In the past few decades, the Clean Water Act has improved the health of rivers, lakes, and coastal waters throughout the United States. Because the law could change in the coming years, we’re taking some time to explore the history of the Clean Water Act: how it came into being and how it’s been altered in the past.

The Williamstown Bridge over the Ohio River

History of the Clean Water Act


The history of the Clean Water Act begins with its predecessor, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, which was the first major law to address water pollution in the United States. Administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this law created a set of comprehensive water quality programs and provided some financing to state and local governments.


In the years following the introduction of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the American public became more concerned about controlling water pollution. In the early 1970s, two-thirds of the nation’s lakes, rivers, and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing or swimming, and untreated sewage was dumped into open water (source). Extensive, wide-ranging amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Act occurred in 1972, and because the law had changed so drastically, its name soon shifted as well. It became commonly known by the name that endures to this day, the Clean Water Act.

The 1972 amendments accomplished all of the following:

  • Established a system to regulate pollutant discharges into the waters of the U.S.
  • Granted the EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs
  • Retained existing requirements to set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters
  • Prohibited the discharge of a pollutant from a point source into navigable waters unless the person obtains a permit under the law’s provisions
  • Funded the construction of sewage treatment plants
  • Recognized the importance of planning when tackling critical issues caused by non-point source pollution

The 1980s

In the 1980s, the law was modified further. The EPA made the municipal construction grants process more efficient in 1981, which assisted treatment plans built under the program. A few years later, in 1987, the EPA phased out the construction grants program and replaced it with the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which developed existing EPA-state partnerships to address water quality issues.

Recent Years

In the past few years, the definition of “waters of the United States,” a critical term used in the Clean Water Act, has been up for debate. From the 1970s to the 1990s, most federal courts and agencies interpreted a broad scope of jurisdiction for the Clean Water Act (source). In the early 2000s, the Supreme Court held that the scope must be interpreted more narrowly, and in 2015, the EPA released a rule on the definition, but this was met with opposition. Currently, agencies must continue to operate as they did prior to the 2015 Rule until the rule’s applicability date, February 20, 2020. This gives the agencies time to reconsider the definition of “waters of the United States.”


Do you need help achieving or maintaining compliance under the Clean Water Act or another program, such as the Clean Air Act, RCRA, DOT, EPCRA, or Oil Pollution Act? Contact Environmental Works, a full-service environmental consulting and contracting firm. We have a well-established working relationship with local, state, and federal regulatory agencies as well as enduring expertise in the area of regulatory compliance. To learn more about our services, please give us a call at 417-890-9500 or contact us online.