Clean Water Act

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An environmental summary created by the ENVS 560/L Watershed Systems class at CSUMB.


Passed into law in 1972, the Clean Water Act (CWA) is the principal federal law concerning the health of navigable waters in the United States. This command-and-control style bill focuses on restoring and preserving the “chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters” using technology-based requirements[1]. It is a culmination of preceding water quality acts, combined with the addition of new requirements and means of enforcement. One major addition to previous requirements is the institution of stricter limitations on effluent discharges from industrial sources[2]. Similar guidelines were set for sewage treatment plants and newly-constructed factories[3]. Those who produce industrial discharge in the form of point source pollution, which includes any effluent from a traceable source such as a pipe or ditch, were required to obtain permits before discharging into waterways[1]. Permits are only issued if the industrial applicant complies with CWA requirements[4].

Origins of nonpoint source (NPS) pollution, like stormwater and agricultural runoff, are harder to define and thus more difficult to regulate. Section 208 of the CWA requires the identification of NPS pollution and possible solutions for controlling it, but the ability to manage these pollutants is still difficult for California [5] and other state legislatures.


Historic photo from 1969 Cuyahoga fire actually from the 1952 fire. Author: Unknown

In 1969, the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio - which, in parts, contained a thin layer of oil from cargo ship leaks - caught on fire. Though this was not the river’s first fire, it was the first to occur after the birth of the environmentalism movement. The combination of media coverage and a $100 million initiative to decontaminate the Cuyahoga in 1968[6] created a moment of punctuated equilibrium, which pushed policymakers to take action. The momentum sparked over this example of environmental degradation led to the re-visioning of both the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the Water Quality Act of 1965 into the still active CWA. Interestingly, the media-circulated photos that generated the public outcry over Cuyahoga were not of the 1969 fire, but from a fire on the same river in 1952[7].

Previous Federal Laws and Regulations

  • 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act
  • Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948
  • Water Quality Act of 1965

History in California

In 1967, the California State legislature launched the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) to protect water quality and allocate water to farmers and municipalities in ways that continue to maximize the protection of California state waters[8]. On a local level, nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards (Regional Boards) were created to implement the state's water quality goals and plans based on each region's geology, hydrology, climate and topography[8].

Previous State Laws and Regulations

Recent Court Cases

Rapanos v. United States[9]

This 2006 ruling is considered by environmentalists to have weakened the Clean Water Act by cutting the country's water protection in half. John Rapanos was convicted of two felonies in the 1980s for converting 54 acres of wetland to a sand-filled foundation for a shopping mall. He sued the government in 2006 stating that the Clean Water Act's definition of navigable waters was too vague. While Rapanos' charges were dropped, the Supreme Court was unable to come up with a clearer legal definition for "navigable waters."

Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE)[10]

The Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County, Illinois applied for permits to turn an old sand mining location into a landfill. Their application was denied by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) on the basis that excavated trenches on site had been transformed into ponds over time and now served as become migratory bird habitat. In 2001, the Supreme Court decided that ACE had overstepped its legislative reach in denying the permit because the ponds were not connected to navigable waters, and therefore ACE did not have jurisdiction under Section 404 of the CWA.

Management of Nonpoint Source Pollution

Historically, nonpoint source (NPS) pollution has been more difficult to manage than point source pollution because it is an accumulation of pollutants from multiple sources and is often dispersed over vast areas of land[11]. As NPS runoff from stormwater, agriculture and industry traverses impervious street surfaces and compacted farm lands, it absorbs salts, oils, fertilizers, insecticides and heavy metals that are ultimately carried diffusely into bodies of surface water[12]. This diffuseness continues to present the challenge of determining which group(s) should bear the financial burden of remediation.

Federal NPS Management Agencies

Management of Nonpoint Source Pollution in California

The two main agencies in charge of creating California’s NPS management plan are the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Coastal Commission. After the introduction of Section 319 of the CWA in 1987, these agencies developed the NPS plan using a watershed-based approach[13]. A watershed-based approach takes into consideration the entire journey that water travels within a defined area - from where the rain first falls to its runoff into rivers or streams which flow into larger water bodies - when making policy and management decisions[14].

State NPS Management Agencies

Section 303(d)

Under Section 303(d) of the CWA, states are required to list their impaired waterways. An impaired waterway is one in which the pollution control methods set in place are insufficient to maintain or achieve appropriate water quality standards. The state uses water quality data to determine if waterways meet the state's standards. For each waterway listed as impaired, the state is required to establish a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for certain pollutants. TDMLs determine the daily loading capacity for each individual pollutant for a water body or waterway.[15]. The 303d list of Impaired Waterbodies in the Monterey Bay Region is a resource for more information on the status of local waterways.

Section 319

The mission of the Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program, established by the 1987 amendments, is to assist the development and management of NPS projects at a local level. Grant money is made available to tribes, territories and states conducting a variety of projects, such as those involving demonstration projects, education, technical assistance, transfer of technology, etc.[16]

Central Coast 319 Projects

Section 319 Projects in the Central Coast Region[17], [18], [19].
Year Title Location
1998 - 1999 Carr Lake Salinas Valley - Carr Lake
2000 - 2001 Monterey Bay Regional Marketing Initiative Monterey County
2001 - 2004 Demonstration Farm & Outreach Program Central Monterey Bay
2010 Riparian Fencing Reduces Bacterial Levels and Improves Habitat in Tributary to National Estuary San Luisito Creek
2011 - 2016 Morro Bay Agricultural Water Quality Enhancement Program Morro Bay
2013 - 2016 Rural Roads Erosion Control Assistance Project Santa Cruz County
2016 - 2019 Pajaro Watershed Livestock and Land Program Santa Cruz County
2017 - 2020 Strawberry Certification Program Pajaro, Lower Salinas and Santa Maria/Oso Flaco watersheds


  1. 1.0 1.1 Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, § 101(a), 33 U.S.C. § 1251 (a).
  2. Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, § 101(a)(l)-(2), 33 U.S.C. § 1251(a)(l)-(2) (1982)
  3. Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, 301(b)(1)(B), (2)(B), 33 U.S.C. § 131 l(b)(1)(B), (2)(B), amended by Pub. L. No. 97-117, § 21(b), 95 Stat. 1623, 1632 (1981)
  4. Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, § 402(a)(1), 33 U.S.C. § 1342(a)(1)
  5. [1978 GAO] Staats EB, Comptroller General. 1978. Water quality management planning is not comprehensive and may not be effective for many years. Government Accountability Office. #CED-78-167.
  6. Rotman M. 2016. Cuyahoga river fire. Cleveland Historical
  7. Latson J. 2015. The Burning River That Sparked a Revolution. Time History Magazine. [Cited on 05 April 2017
  8. 8.0 8.1 Environmental Protection Agency. [Date unknown. Water Quality Standards Regulations: California. [Cited on 03 April 2017]]
  9. Rural Community Assistance Partnership. [Date unknown. About the Clean Water Act. [Cited on 04 April 2017]]]
  10. Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook Cty. v. Army Corps of Engineers. 531 U.S. 159. (2001).
  11. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Polluted runoff: nonpoint source pollution
  12. Withgott J. 2010. Environmental science: your world, your turn. Student edition. Pearson.
  13. State Water Resources Control Board. 2015. Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Plan: policies and plans. [Cited on 02 April 2017]
  14. Texas A&M University. [Date unknown. Watershed approach to water quality management [Cited on 02 April 2017]]
  15. EPA Section 303
  16. 319 Grant Program for States and Territories
  17. Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. 2011. Completed Grants/Programs. [Cited on 04April 2017]
  18. Jones A., Kitajima A. 2010. Riparian Fencing Reduces Bacterial Levels and Improves Habitat in Tributary to National Estuary. Central Coast Water Board and Morro Bay National Estuary Program
  19. Central Coast Water Board. FY 15-16. Grant Projects Managed by Region 3. [Cited on 04 April 2017



This page may contain students's work completed as part of assigned coursework. It may not be accurate. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion or policy of CSUMB, its staff, or students.