“Today the rivers of this country serve as little more than sewers to the seas. Wastes from cities and towns, from farms and  forests, from mining and manufacturing, foul the streams, poison the estuaries, threaten the life of the ocean depths.” 

– Senator Edwin Muskie upon introduction of the CWA in 1971

In 1965, President Johnson called the Potomac River “a national disgrace – a river of decaying sewage and rotten algae. The river rich in history and memory which flows by our nation’s capital should serve as a model of scenic and recreation values for the entire country.”

BEFORE THE 1972 CLEAN WATER ACT, our nation’s waters were severely contaminated by sewage, trash, oil, and toxic industrial pollution. Large and small waters across the country were unsafe for human contact, water supplies, or fish consumption. 

  • An estimated two-thirds of lakes, rivers, and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing and swimming.
  • Only 85 million Americans were served by sewage treatment plants; elsewhere, untreated sewage was dumped directly into rivers and lakes.
  • The Potomac River was so polluted that Arlington, Virginia residents were advised to seek immediate medical attention if they had prolonged exposure to the water. 

The 1972 Clean Water Act – A Visionary Solution

Control Pollution at its Source to Restore and Protect All of the Nation’s Interconnected Waters 

  • Objective: Restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters
  • Goal: Eliminate the discharge of pollutants to the nation’s waters by 1985
  • Protected: Rivers, lakes, streams, coastal waters, wetlands
  • Responsibilities: Implemented primarily by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) in partnership with states, tribal and local governments 

Core Clean Water Act Provisions: 

  • Discharge Elimination Permits: Prohibits corporations, sewage treatment plants, and others from using pipes, ditches, and similar conveyances to dump dangerous wastes, chemicals, and other pollution into water without a permit 
  • Dredge and Fill Permits: Prohibits dredging and filling of waters for mining, pipelines, and other development without a permit 
  • State and Tribal Backstops: Allows states and tribes to evaluate federal permits involving pollution discharges to ensure they protect water quality 
  • Technology-Forcing and Water-Quality-Based Pollution Standards: Requires permits to include pollution controls, limits, and monitoring that protect public health and water quality needed for drinking water, fisheries, swimming, wildlife, shellfish, farming, and other uses

Clean Water Act Strategies, Resources, and Tools for Waterkeepers and the Public: 

  • Water Quality Assessment and Restoration: EPA, states, and tribes are required to assess water quality and take action to restore polluted waters 
  • Rights of the public and Citizen Suit Enforcement: The law provides the public with robust rights to information and participation in water quality decision-making and permitting, including the right to enforce the Clean Water Act in federal court when governments or polluters violate the law. 
  • Supportive Resource, Funding, and Programs: Includes many programs to protect and restore watersheds through public-private partnerships, infrastructure funding, grant programs, and scientific, technical, and educational resources


The Clean Water Act has dramatically reduced pollution and improved water quality across the country, but progress is threatened by deregulation, lack of enforcement, and other pollution issues not adequately addressed by the Clean Water Act.

Pollution Reduction: 

  • Each year, national technology-forcing standards eliminate 700 billion tons of toxic pollution from 40,000 facilities that discharge directly to water, 129,000 facilities that discharge to municipal wastewater treatment systems, and discharges from certain construction sites. 
  • It is no longer common to dump untreated sewage directly into water. As of 2012, 234 million people (74% of the U.S. population) were being served by advanced sewage treatment systems subject to Clean Water Act pollution limits. 
  • A nationwide review of 50 million water quality measurements by researchers at UC Berkeley and Iowa State University found that the Clean Water Act has “driven significant improvements in U.S. water quality” including an increase in the amount of  oxygen in the water that fish need to breathe and a decrease in the amount of bacteria from sewage. The share of rivers safe for fishing increased by 12% between 1972 and 2001. 


The majority of the nation’s waters are not monitored for pollution under the Clean Water Act due to lack of funding, prioritization, and other resources.  

  • For example, only 31% of the nation’s rivers and streams and 45% of lakes and reservoirs have been assessed in the most recent reports from EPA.  
  • However, where water quality monitoring and assessment has been completed the majority of the waters have been found to be polluted and unsafe for swimming, drinking, fishing, or other uses. 
  • According to EPA, mercury (primarily in fish tissue), pathogens, nutrients, PCBs, sediment, and organic enrichment/oxygen depletion were all cited by the states as leading causes of impairment in assessed waters. 
  • Agricultural activities, including Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, remain one of the leading sources of unaddressed pollution. 

Goals for 2022 and Beyond


  • Federal Agencies and the States Must Fully Implement and Enforce the Clean Water Act 
  • EPA and the Corps Must Ensure that Headwaters and Wetlands are Protected by the Clean Water Act 
  • EPA, USDA, and the States Must Clean Up Industrialized Animal Agriculture Pollution 
  • Federal Agencies and the States Must Prevent Pollution from Urban and Agricultural Runoff, Stormwater, and Sewage Overflows 
  • EPA Must Adopt Science-Based Pollution Controls for New Kinds of Toxic Pollutants and Plastics

Source: Waterkeeper Alliance