The Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, which were later known as the Clean Water Act after they were amended again in 1977, were instrumental in the protection of the surface water quality in the United States. The act itself does not concern water quality or groundwater but does give regulatory and non-regulatory tools to reduce direct pollution discharge that entered waterways (lakes, rivers, and coastal water) through several different means. The act came as a result of public outcry as well as the unchecked dumping of pollutants into the waterways of the country.
Before the Clean Water Act, there really weren’t many regulations for what could enter waterways. There was also nothing to maintain the integrity of the waters in the United States. Water quality standards had been created for waterways in the country and stated that water bodies couldn’t exceed certain limits so as to remain safe for fish and wildlife as well as for recreation by people. However there were no limits on how much a specific source (industry, factory, agriculture, or other sources) could pollute and no one was really monitoring these sources.
In the years before the establishment of the Clean Water Act, a number of studies were performed on the waterways and water samples of the country to determine why fish were dying and why people were getting sick. The results showed increasing pollution problems and levels of physical and chemical water quality parameters that were several times above what was deemed as safe levels. For example, the following time-line and accompanying information featured on PBS.org highlight the problems with waterways and drinking water:
1968 – A survey conducted in Chesapeake Bay revealed that the fishing industry was losing three million dollars annually because of the pollution in the bay.
1969 – A studied revealed that the bacterial levels in the Hudson river were 170 times higher than the established safe limit for a body of water.
1969 – Record numbers of fish kills were reported that exceeded forty one million. The largest fish kill ever recorded occurred in Lake Thonotosassa, Florida on that same year and twenty six million fish were reported dead.
1969 – A mysterious floating oil slick appeared and then caught fire in the Cuyohoga River near Cleveland, Ohio. Two railroad trestles were damaged in the fire and the cause of the fire was never determined, though the oil slick was from the discharge of petroleum derivatives.
1970 – A sampling by the Bureau of Water Hygiene of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, showed that nearly thirty percent of the drinking water it sampled had chemicals that were in excess of the recommended limits.
1971 – A report by the FDA showed that eighty-seven percent of the swordfish caught in the coastal water of the United States were contaminated with high enough mercury levels that they were no longer fit for human consumption
1972 – At the point that the amendments were passed, a study showed that nearly two-thirds of the nation’s waterways were polluted and were no longer safe for recreation or fishing.
It was because of these studies, as well as the fact that people were getting sick and fish were turning up dead, that made people act and lead to the passing of today’s Clean Water Act. People were seeing waterways become terribly polluted and that could no longer support fish or any form of recreation. Since its implementation, the Clean Water Act has stopped the dumping of billions of pounds of pollution into the waterways of the United States. An implementation system for monitoring and the discharges to the waterways, as well as treatment plants treating wastewater and runoff were created. The goal was to restore waterways and maintain water quality levels. Unfortunately, despite its passing, about forty-five percent of lakes, thirty-nine percent of rivers and fifty-one percent of the estuaries monitored are still considered contaminated.