Clean Water Laws – Prior to Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974

Glass Being Filled with Tap WaterAmericans enjoy some of the safest drinking water in the world, but it wasn’t always so.

A series of posts will look at U.S. legislation intended to prevent water pollution and ensure water is safe to drink. The first post covers legislation enacted prior to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.

Before Clean Water Legislation

In the early days, people observed animals to learn what sources were safe to eat and drink from and which weren’t. As villages, towns, and then cities developed, lack of sanitation and industrial waste polluted public wells and other water sources.

The connection between contaminated water and disease came together in the 19th century. Dr. John Snow tied a London cholera outbreak to a contaminated public well, Louis Pasteur developed the theory disease can be spread by germs, and chlorine was proven to be effective at disinfecting water.

While scientists, physicians, and engineers worked on how to identify and remove waterborne pathogens from public water supplies, the government got in the game by enacting legislation.

Clean Water Legislation Prior to 1974

Beginning in the late 19th century, Congress enacted laws directly and indirectly related to clean water. A few are highlighted below.

Interstate Quarantine Act of 1893

The purpose of the Interstate Quarantine Act of 1893 was to prevent the spread of disease via immigration and interstate commerce, which at that time would have been people traveling by ship and train. The Public Health Service became responsible for ensuring water provided for passengers and at stations was “of satisfactory sanitary quality and safety”. Drinking cups for common use were prohibited unless they were cleaned after each use.

This is the law that gave the Public Health Service authority to establish and regulate drinking water quality standards which they did in 1914, revising and expanding them in 1925, 1946, and 1962.

Perrine Bridge over Snake River - Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 - Photo: U.S. Army Corps of EngineersRivers and Harbors Act of 1899

In 1899, the Rivers and Harbors Act was enacted to ensure U.S. navigable waterways remained navigable. Construction of structures like bridges and dams, and excavation and fill projects required approval, and still do.

Originally intended to keep debris out of waterways, Section 13 requires permits “for the discharge of refuse matter into or affecting navigable waters”. In later years, the “refuse act” was used as an enforcement tool to prevent water pollution.

Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was the first major federal law to address water pollution. The Public Health Service was authorized to work with federal, state, and local agencies on programs to eliminate pollution of interstate waterways and improve the sanitary quality of surface and underground waters. Federal enforcement was limited.

The Act was amended numerous times and morphed into the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Water Quality Act of 1965

An excerpt from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s remarks at signing the Water Quality Act of 1965 illustrates public concern about water pollution at the time,

“There is no excuse for a river flowing red with blood from slaughterhouses. There is no excuse for papermills pouring tons of sulphuric acid into the lakes and the streams of the people of this country. There is no excuse–and we should call a spade a spade-for chemical companies and oil refineries using our major rivers as pipelines for toxic wastes. There is no excuse for communities to use other people’s rivers as a dump for their raw sewage.”

Under the Water Quality Act, states were now required to develop water quality standards and goals for interstate waters. The federal government was given greater authority to enforce clean water laws.

Clean Water Act of 1972

In 1972, far reaching amendments were made to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act which then became known as the Clean Water Act (CWA).

Responsibility for regulating U.S. water quality and pollution was turned over to the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Several key features of the CWA include:

  • Effluent Pipe in Stream with DucksThe EPA has authority to set effluent and wastewater standards.
  • It is unlawful to discharge any pollutant into navigable waters, unless a permit is obtained via the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).
  • States maintain responsibility to set and monitor water quality standards, with EPA oversight.
  • Funding assistance is provided for pollution control and sewage treatment projects.
  • The EPA has authority to issue administrative orders against violators, and seek civil or criminal penalties.
  • Any U.S. citizen may file suit against any person who allegedly violated effluent standards or limitations, or the EPA Administrator for failing to perform non discretionary duties.

Major amendments to the CWA occurred in 1977 and 1987.

The next post in this series will focus on the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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