Clean Water Act

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The United States Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, 33 U.S.C.A. 1251 et seq. (1972), and it became known as the Clean Water Act after Congress passed significant set of amendments to it in 1977.

This legislation established the symbolic goals of eliminating water release of toxic amounts of toxic substances, eliminating additional water pollution by 1985, and ensuring that surface waters would meet standards necessary for human sports and recreation by 1983.

To achieve this, it required that individuals obtain permits before releasing any pollutants into U.S. waters (including wetlands), and allowed EPA to create effluent limits for point sources (releases of discrete streams of wastewater, such as from factory pipes), based on Best Available Technology standards. These standards were set as an enforceable national minimum and preempted less stringent state legislation. In addition to technology-based standards, it also created a system to move towards achieving health and water quality-based standards that would create waters that would be safe enough for activities such as fishing and swimming. While the technology-based standards have been largely successful, because they apply to specific sources and are enforceable, the health and water quality-based standards have been much less so. In 2002 there were still tens of thousands of rivers, lakes and bays that were not safe enough for fishing and swimming. The most important remaining cause of these problems is diffuse runoff from farms, streets, and yards; these sources are almost never subject to specific enforceable standards.

To assist municipalities in creating wastewater treatment plants that were capable of meeting these standards, the CWA established a system to provide federal financial assistance, first in the form of construction grants, which were modified several times and later replaced by the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund in 1987.

Other important aspects of the CWA include a citizen suit provision, and the use of Supplemental Environmental Programs in addition to significant fines in the enforcement process.

The Clean Water Act succeeded in drastically reducing water pollution. By the beginning of the 21st Century, waterfront development was a major goal in localities throughout America. 90% of new development in New York State was waterfront development. A member of the North Delaware Riverfront Task Force, State Rep. Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia, said that "The reduction of water pollution gave new life to many old urban and industrialized areas. Formerly useless land suddenly became highly desirable, and the vision of an East Coast Greenway, spanning from Maine to Florida, became a reasonable goal to work towards."

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