The Federal Water Pollution Control Act the Clean Water Restoration Act the Safe Drinking Water Act and Amendments

Today we are concerned with both the availability (or scarcity) of water and the quality of the water. These concerns are best summarized by Charles C. Johnson, Former Assistant Surgeon General of the United States who said ( history/topics/fwpca/05.htm)

Our water resources, more perhaps than any other, illustrate the interaction of all parts of the environment and particularly, the recycling process that characterizes every resource of the ecosystem. . . . Everything that man himself injects into the biosphere—chemical, biological or physical—can ultimately find its way into the Earth's water. And these contaminants must be removed, by nature or by man, before that water is again potable.

This statement also encompasses the need for maintaining the quality of our dwindling water resources. But this is not a recent development. Water treatment to improve the taste and odor were recorded as early as 4000 b.c. Ancient Sanskrit and Greek writings indicated the use of water treatment methods such as filtering dirty water through charcoal, exposing the water to sunlight, boiling by placing a hot metal rod in the water, and straining. Chemical treatment, such as adding alum to remove suspended particles, was used as by Egyptians as early as 1500 b.c. (EPA, 2000) Indications of poor quality such as visible cloudiness (turbidity), taste, and odor were the driving forces behind early water treatment, since bacteria, the source of disease, had not been discovered.

Large-scale filtration was introduced in the 1700s as an effective way to remove particles from water, with sand filtration being regularly used in Europe in the 1800s. The epidemiologist Dr. John Snow proved in 1855 that cholera was a waterborne disease by linking an outbreak in London to a single public well contaminated by sewage (EPA, 2000). In the 1880s, Louis Pasteur developed the "germ theory." During the late 1800s and early 1900s, water treatment focused more on disease-causing microbes or pathogens in public water supplies. Research at the time showed not only that turbidity was an aesthetic problem but also that particles harbored pathogens. In 1908, chlorine was first used as a primary disinfectant in the Jersey City (New Jersey) drinking water plant.

The government first stepped in in 1914, when the U.S. Public Health Service set standards for the bacteriological quality of drinking water. These standards were subsequently revised in 1925, 1946, and 1962. In 1962, 28 substances were regulated in drinking water. The first major legislation was the River and Harbor Act of 1886, which was basically an act to protect waterways from substances or material that would interfere with shipping. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) of 1948 was enacted to "enhance the quality and value of our water resources and to establish a national policy for the prevention, control, and abatement of water pollution" ( The Water Pollution Control Act of 1956 strengthened enforcement provisions of the 1948 Act, and the federal role in regulating states was further expanded in 1965 with the enactment of interstate water quality standards. The Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966 imposed fines on a polluter who failed to submit a required report. Additional acts and amendments on water quality include the FWPCA Amendments of 1972, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, Clean Water Act Amendments of 1977, and the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986 and 1996. As you can see, there has been considerable legislative activity with respect to water, which emphasizes the importance of water to human life and stable civilization.

So what have these Acts actually done to improve water quality? They defined sources of pollutants in two ways. Point sources are broadly defined to include any "discernible, confined, and discrete conveyance" including any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, or container from which pollutants are or may be discharged. Point sources are usually subdivided into industrial and municipal sources. Nonpoint sources include a range of inputs to surface waters, including runoff from agricultural fields, feedlots, paved streets and parking areas, mining sites, forestry operations, and atmospheric deposition. Pollutants or contaminants of concern spec ified in these Acts include (1) conventional pollutants such as human wastes, food from sink disposals, laundry and bath waters, and waters containing fecal coliforms and oil and grease, (2) toxic pollutants such as organics (pesticides, solvents, poly-chlorinated biphenyls, and dioxins) and metals, and (3) nonconventional pollutants such as nutrients containing nitrogen and phosphorus. The Acts also established a list of water quality criteria that originally included 115 "priority pollutants" and set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for particular pollutants or contaminants in drinking water. Thus, these Acts gave EPA the power to (1) identify pollutants or contaminants and (2) determine the maximum contaminant level.

One of the most important elements of these Acts established the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which stated that all individual, government, and industrial point sources must have a permit to discharge waste into any waterway. The permit states what pollutant can be emitted and at what level (mass loading) the pollutant can be released. Violations of the permit can result in fines and imprisonment.

Government funding to build sewage and water treatment plants for municipalities was provided under the FWPCA of 1948, the Clean Water Act Amendments of 1956, and additional funding in 1961 and 1971. The construction and operation of these plants were instrumental in cleaning up sewage and associated bacteria from our waterways.

A chronological account of the evolution of recent water quality legislation follows.

1. The original Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974

(a) federally mandated the regulation of contaminants that pose a health risk to the public based on frequency of the chemical and contaminant nature,

(b) established a maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG), which is the limit below which there is no known or expected threat to public health,

(c) designated that EPA would specify a maximum contaminant level (MCL) that is as close to the MCLG as deemed feasible through technology and cost effectiveness, and

(d) provided that, in the event that no MCL can be determined, the EPA set a required treatment technique that specifies a way to treat the water to remove contaminants.

2. In 1979, the presence and concentrations of six synthetic organic chemicals,

10 inorganic chemicals, turbidity, total coliform bacteria, radium-226, radium-

228, and total trihalomethanes were added to the control of EPA. Also added was the provision that in the event of a violation, the established system (state or federal government) must notify the public.

3. The Amendments of 1986

(a) established regulations for 83 contaminants,

(b) required disinfection of all public water supplies,

(c) specified filtration requirements for nearly all water systems that draw water from surface sources,

(d) developed additional requirements to protect groundwater supplies (Wellhead Protection programs and Sole Source Aquifer Program)

(e) established monitoring requirements on nonregulated contaminants every five years so the EPA could decide if these should be regulated in the future,

(f) implemented a new ban on lead-based solder, pipe and flux materials in water distribution systems, and

(g) specified the "best available technology" for the major drinking water contaminant groups (pathogens, organic and inorganic contaminants, and disinfectant by-products).

4. The Amendments of 1996

(a) required consumer confidence reports,

(b) required source water assessments,

(c) specified State capacity development strategies,

(d) gave water plant certification revisions,

(e) required public notification improvements,

(f) provided new publicly accessible drinking water contaminant databases,

(g) required annual compliance reporting,

(h) required health care provider outreach and education, and

(i) developed the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) for treatment facility upgrades.

To summarize, the Clean Water Acts (1) gave EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs such as the setting of water quality standards, (2) made it unlawful for any person to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters without a permit, (3) funded the construction of water and sewage treatment plants, and (4) recognized the need for planning to address the critical problems posed by non-point-source pollution.

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