Protecting the Clean Water Act

Aramburu Island Restoration

Background: The Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is landmark environmental protection legislation passed in 1972 that applies to all waters of the United States. It sets standards, defines permit requirements, and establishes enforcement powers and penalties. Pollutants, industrial wastewater discharge, and sewage treatment are all regulated under the Act's provisions.

The Clean Water Act was written to broadly apply to the nation's waters, including wetlands. However, the statute used the term "navigable waters," which has led to questions, challenges, and lawsuits regarding the Act's protections. Certain special interests continue to pressure for increased development at the expense of protections for the environment.

Two recent Supreme Court rulings have ignored the original intent of the bill. In 2006 the court issued a splintered decision in two cases (known as the Rapanos and Carabell cases) that made it harder to determine which bodies of water could qualify for CWA protection. The impact of this decision and others highlighted the need for revisions of the Act. The Clean Water Restoration Act, now pending before Congress, is intended to clarify that the Act applies to all the nation's waters, including wetlands.