Water-related Legislation in the United States

bridges vol. 18, July 2008 / Bills in Brief: U.S. S&T Policy News


With water being one of the most important resources on the planet, several US laws try to ensure, maintain, or restore the quality and the protection of water so the population can access clean, non-harmful water.

One of the most important US legislative acts related to water is the Clean Water Act :

The Clean Water Act is the primary federal law in the United States addressing water pollution and the regulation of quality standards for surface water. The basis of the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1948 and was called the Federal Water Pollution act, but the Act was reorganized in 1972. The amendments significantly expanded and strengthened the earlier laws. Further important amendments were the Clean Water Act of 1977, enacted by the 95th United States Congress, and the Water Quality Act of 1987, enacted by the 100th United States Congress.1

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA ) set quality standards for all contaminants in surface water and implemented pollution control programs. The Clean Water Act made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable water, unless a permit was obtained.2

Many environmental groups and several states are faulting EPA for delays in issuing the guidance and assistance needed to carry out the provisions of the law. By contrast, environmental groups are criticized for insufficient appreciation of the need for flexibility on the part of the EPA and the states in order to implement the Act. Finally, Congress has been criticized for not providing adequate funding and resources to meet EPA and state needs.3

In addition to the Clean Water Act, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act :

Passed by Congress in 1974 to protect the quality of drinking water and its sources (rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and ground water wells), the Safe Drinking Water Act applies to every public water system in the United States, but not to bottled water. The law focuses on all waters actually or potentially designed for drinking use, whether from aboveground or underground sources. The EPA is required to set standards for drinking water quality to protect against naturally occurring and man-made contaminants that may be found in drinking water.4

At first, the Safe Drinking Water Act primarily focused on providing safe drinking water at the tap. In 1996, the existing law was enhanced by recognizing source water protection, operator training, funding for water systems improvements, and public information as important components of safe drinking water. With this amendment the water is protected from source to tap.5

When looking into water (protection) legislation in the United States, one Supreme Court decision must also be taken into consideration - the Rapanos Decision :

Rapanos v. United States, 547 US 715 (2006), was a United States Supreme Court case challenging the Clean Water Act. It was the first major environmental case heard by the newly appointed Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito.

Petitioners in Rapanos argued that the Clean Water Act protections apply only to "traditional navigable" waters (those suitable for use by commercial vessels) and those wetlands and streams directly adjacent to those waterways.

In a highly controversial decision, the Court's plurality opinion (written by Justice Scalia and supported by Justices Thomas, Alito, and Chief Justice Roberts) held that wetlands adjacent to non-navigable tributaries are "waters of the United States" subject to CWA protection only if two conditions are met: (1) the tributary to which the wetland is adjacent is a "relatively permanent" waterbody; and (2) the wetland has a "continuous surface connection" with the tributary.

According to the US EPA, Rapanos removes Clean Water Act protection from 53 to 59 percent of the nation's waters (excluding Alaska); other scientists and environmental groups believe this is a conservative estimate and that as much as 90 percent of the nation's waters lose federal protection.

In 2002, the US Congress introduced the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act. It was reintroduced in 2007 as the Clean Water Restoration Act , and provides a clear statutory definition of "waters of the US" and a clear Congressional mandate for the Clean Water Act to protect all of our Nation's waters and wetlands. It replaces the term "navigable waters" with the term "waters of the United States,"6  which means "all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds, and all impoundments of the foregoing, to the fullest extent that these waters, or activities affecting them, are subject to the legislative power of Congress under the Constitution."7

As of June 13, 2008, it had collected 176 co-sponsors.


1) http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/lawas.cwa.html
2) http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/lawas.cwa.html         
3) http://www.ncseonline.org/NLE/CRSreports/water/h2o-15.cfm
4) http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/sdwa.html
5) http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/sdwa.html
    http://www.epa.gov/safewater/sdwa/30th/factsheet/understand.html
6) http://www.cleanwateraction.org/pdf/factsheets/
factsheet-NavigatingCWRARhetoric_200804.pdf
    http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/
z?d110:HR02421:@@@L&summ2=m&
    http://yubanet.com/usa/
Congress-to-Hold-Largest-Hearing-Ever-on-Clean-Water-Legislation.php
7) http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d110:HR02421:@@@L&summ2=m& {/access}