On Oct. 18, 1972, Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act amendments which became the cornerstone of what would become known as the Clean Water Act (CWA). Industry and environmentalists alike agree that the CWA has been one of the country's most effective environmental laws. Citing the Cuyahoga River’s conflagration in 1969 and the Hudson River’s subjection to raw sewage and industrial discharge, there seems to be universal agreement that there has been great improvement to U.S. waters through the CWA.
Yet there is discord concerning the need for updates and revisions to the CWA. In part, the CWA is a victim of its own overarching ambitions. It set standards that turned out to be impossible for the country to meet. For instance, in 1972, it was written that the discharge of all pollution into navigable waters should be eliminated by 1985.
Environmentalists contend that the CWA needs to be updated and strengthened, with claims that many kinds of pollution stemming from agriculture, mining, septic systems, storm water runoff, and the timber industry are still largely unregulated and are causing problems such as dead zones, hypoxic waters, and harmful algal blooms in the nation's waters.
States and municipalities complain about unfunded mandates and are urging the federal government to invest more heavily in infrastructure.
Agriculture and many other industries are claiming that the EPA is overstepping the bounds and undermining federal-state cooperation set out by the CWA. EPA is being charged with overriding states’ rights to establish their own water quality standards in Florida, the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River Basin. A guidance document developed by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers is viewed by many industries as a means to greatly expand the jurisdiction of the CWA beyond the “navigable waters” of the United States. In addition, the CWA permit issuance system for certain pesticide applications, mandated by a court ruling, is seen by agriculture and other industries as duplicative and unnecessary regulation.
Although the CWA’s achievements seem universally accepted, the limitations and the means of implementation of this law will be controversial for years to come.