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The Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act

The first meaningful federal legislation mandating clean up of our nation's waterways occurred in 1948. Not coincidentally, both the engineering firms of Cornell Howland Hayes and Merrifield and Clair A. Hill & Associates began rapidly growing at about the same time. A large part of that growth was fueled by the need to design, construct and operate literally thousands of wastewater treatment facilities. Thus for the two engineering firms that later joined together to form what is today the premier environmental design firm in the United States, the enactment of this legislation could not have occurred at a more opportune time.

The 1948 act was the first comprehensive statement of federal interest in clean water programs. It provided state and local governments with technical assistance funds to address water pollution problems, including research. Research grants, while permitted under the original act and its successor legislation were relatively rare. Notwithstanding this, the two firms were awarded research grants for the early pilot plant work at the South Lake Tahoe Public Utility District. In what was even more unusual, the US Public Health Service (USPHS) twice renewed these grants during the period 1961 to 1963.

Four major new laws amended this original legislation during the time between 1948 and the early 1960s. The amendments dealt largely with extending federal jurisdiction from the original 1948 concept of protecting only interstate waters to inclusion of all navigable intrastate, as well as interstate, waters. The amendments also provided for federal assistance to municipal dischargers in the form of federal grants for sewage treatment facilities. Concurrently with the federal grant money came federal enforcement programs for all wastewater dischargers, both municipal and industrial. Initially the USPHS and the newly created Federal Water Pollution Control Agency administered grants and enforcement.

By the late 1960s, it became apparent that existing enforcement procedures were not producing timely results. The original premise that wastewater discharges could be controlled by adoption of a water quality standards approach was ineffective due to difficulties in linking a particular discharger to violations of stream quality standards. Mounting frustration over the slow pace of pollution cleanup efforts and the realization that available control technologies were being developed but not applied to the problems became widespread. These perceptions and frustrations, along with increased public interest in environmental protection, set the stage for the rather complete overhaul of pollution abatement legislation that we now know as the Clean Water Act of 1972.

The act was drafted and the House Public Works Committee began hearings on the bill in the year 1971. Representative Harold (Bizz) Johnson, serving Northern California's 2nd Congressional District, was Chairman of the House Subcommittee to which the bill was assigned. Both Clair Hill and Harlan Moyer had participated in congressional hearings at his request. Rep. Johnson was very familiar with the South Lake Tahoe Tertiary Treatment Facility, which at the time represented the cutting edge of technology. He therefore contacted Hill's firm to ask for assistance from the Tahoe designers in crafting the best possible pollution control legislation. At that same time, Moyer and Gene Suhr were living in the District of Columbia area, hard at work on the Preliminary Engineering Report for the Occoquan Project. Rep. Johnson contacted the two engineers, invited them to lunch for some of the Congressional Dining Room's excellent bean soup, and sought their professional input concerning the act's provisions. Although extremely busy and facing an imminent deadline for completion of the Occoquan Report, the pair agreed to help. Their help came in the form of lengthy memo from Suhr to Rep. Johnson incorporating several suggestions for the betterment of the act. A number of these, having to do with describing and mandating best available and best practicable treatment practices, were incorporated into the Act.

The 1972 legislation declared as its objective the restoration and maintenance of the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters. Two goals also were established: zero discharge of pollutants by 1985 and, as an interim goal and where possible, water quality that is both "fishable" and "swimmable" by mid-1983.

The Act placed rigorous demands on those who are regulated by it to achieve higher and higher levels of pollution abatement. Industries were given until July 1, 1977, to install "best practicable control technology" (BPT) to clean up waste discharges. Municipal wastewater treatment plants were required to meet an equivalent goal, termed secondary treatment, by that date. The primary focus of BPT was on controlling discharges of conventional pollutants, such as suspended solids, biochemical oxygen demanding materials, fecal coliform and bacteria, and pH. These pollutants are substances, which are biodegradable (i.e., bacteria can break them down), that occur naturally in the aquatic environment and deplete the dissolved oxygen concentration in water, which is necessary for fish and other aquatic life.

For industrial dischargers, the Act required greater pollutant cleanup than BPT by no later than March 31, 1989, generally demanding that industry use the "best available technology" (BAT) that is economically achievable. BAT level controls generally focus on toxic substances.

Finally, the Act created a new federal agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to be responsible for the administration of federal pollution abatement programs and enforcement of water quality protection laws. Since 1972, the Clean Water Act has been amended several times. Its original focus was directed at what were termed point source discharges. These were readily identifiable discharges from pipes or man-made channels. In 1987, the focus was expanded to include non-point discharges. These include such pollution sources as stormwater runoff from agricultural lands, forests, construction sites, and urban areas, both developed and undeveloped areas. Stormwater caused by rainfall or snowmelt travels across land surface towards rivers and streams. It picks up pollutants, including sediments, toxic materials, and conventional wastes (e.g., nutrients) that can degrade water quality. In 2003, such runoff is estimated to represent more than 50% of the nation's remaining water pollution problems at the current time.