Several statutes prescribe or affect the laws of the United States dealing with water pollution.  Among them are the Rivers & Harbors Act, the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.  Additionally, state laws are relevant. State laws governing water resources differ markedly in the West, where water is scarce, from the East, where it has been historically plentiful.  The Clean Air Act has provisions that affect the Great Lakes, and treaty provisions may affect boundary waters. One almost has to write a small book to try to describe these laws in detail.  On this web page, I deal only with the Clean Water Act, in summary form.

The Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972. It included an ambitious program goals of eliminating the discharge  of pollutants to navigable waters of the United States and of making all waters fishable and swimmable by the 1980s.  States were given the responsibility of adopting programs that provided for improved water quality, and the EPA was directed to adopt discharge standards for various industries.   Every discharger from a "point source" to waters of the United States was required to obtain a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES permit). Significant industrial dischargers to publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) were required to  meet "pretreatment" standards before their effluent entered the sewers.  A grant program was established to provide substantial federal assistance for the installation and upgrading of POTWs.  The Clean Water Act underwent revision in 1977 and there was a further significant revision in 1987.

NPDES Permits

A "point source" includes any pipe, channel, vessel, ditch or other discernible, confined and discrete means of conveyance or possible conveyance of "pollutants or contaminants" to "waters of the United States".  The owner or operator of a point source must have a permit from the United States or an authorized State program that describes and limits the discharge.  The permittee must comply with the permit under penalty of civil or criminal prosecution.  Limited exceptions exist for discharges involving surface runoff, irrigation return flows, certain boat or ship discharges, water from dams and certain wells that are otherwise permitted.   "Waters of the United States" is a broader term than "navigable waters", because it includes intermittent streams and groundwaters. "Pollutants" are also very broadly defined.  Thus in almost all cases of discharge from a point source to waters or groundwaters, an NPDES permit should be in place.

The limitations that a permittee must meet under the NPDES program depend upon the nature of the source facility and its age.  They also may be affected by restrictions necessary to achieve water quality standards in the receiving waters, irrespective of the nature of the source.

Indirect Dischargers are facilities that discharge to publicly owned sewer systems (POTWs) which provide treatment prior to discharging to waters of the United States.  In the case of most industries, EPA has developed pretreatment standards that are comparable to direct discharge standards, but which may make some allowance for the presence of POTWs.  POTWs are required to enact user charges that reimburse the public for the cost of treatment provided to industrial sources.  Additionally, an indirect source may not cause damage to a POTW operation (e.g. by discharging metals that may damage treatment processes) or cause it to pass through pollutants which pretreatment should have eliminated from a wastestream.

Water Quality Programs

In order to achieve the fishable and swimmable goal of the law, EPA and the States are engaged in a complex process of setting water quality standards.  These standards take into account the capacity of a given river or other body of water to absorb nutrients and other pollutants without degrading.  The Clean Water Act requires States to develop and enforce plans that will evoke improvements in water quality.  This process pushes industry toward development of "zero discharge" methods of water use (and reuse), because increases in water quality standards usually translate into higher treatment costs.  It also pressures POTWs, due to the impact their discharges have on conventional measurements of water quality such as suspended solids and oxygen demand.

Toxics controls form a significant element of the water quality planning process.   These programs identify so-called "hot spots" in waterways and lakes that are not being adequately addressed by the regular application of NPDES discharge standards and water quality standards.

Agricultural and Other Non-Point Source Runoff

Agricultural and storm water runoff form the largest source of water contamination nationwide.  The practicality of dealing with the results of erosion and the importance of agriculture served historically to delay the implementation of stringent standards on agriculture.  However, serious efforts have been undertaken in recent years to tighten these requirements.

Enforcement and Citizen Suits

  The Clean Water Act imposes serious civil and criminal liability on violators.  Misdemeanor prosecution is possible for negligent violations.   Felony conviction is possible for knowing violations of the law.   Given the detail and typically numerous requirements of an NPDES permit, plus the fact that a civil penalty liability of up to $27,500 per violation is possible every day, penalties can mount to very high figures.  Permit holders are required to self-report violations.  False reporting is a criminal act.

Citizens with an interest are enabled to prosecute ongoing violations of the law.   Doing so requires that certain notice and other jurisdictional requirements be met.