What is the Clean Water Act?

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "What is the Clean Water Act?," in The Business Professor, updated January 22, 2015, last accessed April 8, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/knowledge-base/what-is-the-clean-water-act/.
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Clean Water Act
This video explains what is the Clean Water Act.

Next Article: Clean Water Act – Exceptions or Variances


What is The Clean Water Act?

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is made up of several water pollution control acts including, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Water Quality Act. The CWA protects society from the harmful effects of discharge of pollutants into navigable waterways by municipal and industrial dischargers. It regulates distributions from what are known as “point sources’ and “non-point sources”.

•    Point Sources – These include direct discharges from an immediate point, such as a pipe or drainage culvert. The CWA requires point source polluters to install or implement best practicable technology (BPT) and best available technology (BAT), based upon new or existing points sources. The CWA further prohibits discharges from a point source without a permit, which requires that the discharge meet defined effluent limitations. This is a similar approach to CAA’s new source limitations.

•    Non-point Sources – These include indirect discharge such drainage and run-off from spraying. While this type of discharge is not directly regulated by the CWA, the EPA is authorized under the CWA to require polluters to adopt limitations necessary to meet state water-quality (WQ) standards. The CWA also requires that a state implement any of the following plans to regulate non-point discharges:

⁃    Area-wide Waste Management Plans – This may include broad-scale waste treatment plans for areas with substantial water quality problems.

⁃    State Management Plans – A management plan must include best management practices for non-point sources such as agricultural operations.

⁃    Permit Program – A state can use a marketable permit scheme approach to regulate non-point discharge of pollutants.

The EPA requires that states designate uses of intrastate waters with the goal of fishable or swimmable quality and set standards for the total “maximum daily load” of pollutants in a body of water. States must determine the water quality criteria necessary to support the designated use. Either numerical concentrations or narrative criteria may be considered. States must then meet the non-degradation policy limiting any degradation from prior water quality. The EPA also has a means for controlling interstate pollution such that a downstream state can enforce its water-quality standards against upstream pollution sources.

Other relevant Clean Water laws include the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 (MPRSA) and Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA). The MPRSA requires a polluter to receive a permit system before discharging potential pollutants into the ocean. The SDWA requires the EPA to set maximum acceptable levels for certain contaminants in drinking water.

•    Discussion: How do you feel about the protective requirements of the Clean Water Act? Why do you think the CWA focus on point, rather than non-point, polluters? Do have confidence that the best practical and best available technology standards, along with the permit system, are sufficient protections? Do you believe that the standards applicable to non-point polluters are appropriate? Why do you think the CWA allows for exemptions from its provisions based upon economic impact or process issues?

•    Practice Question: ABC Corp is a manufacturer of textiles. For the last 30 years, ABC has runs a factory located on a river that emits some level of point-source pollution in the local river. What Clean Water Act standards must ABC meet in order to continue its operations?

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