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From Flammable to Fishable: the US Clean Water Act

The law changed America’s waters but remains a work in progress almost five decades later.

This story was written by University of Idaho Extension Area Water Educator Jim Ekins, Ph.D., for the CDA Press on June 13, 2021. Read the original article

The U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) resulted in profound water quality improvements. It is hard to believe how bad water pollution was in the prior decades. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, laden with petroleum, caught fire in 1969 as it had 13 times since 1868. Three other rivers caught fire that year. Fishing and swimming also were not safe in the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane Rivers.

The CWA passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the U.S. House and Senate. President Nixon vetoed the act but Congress easily overrode it. The CWA was unique in integrating pollution standards, solution funding and enforcement to restore U.S. waterways. The act makes it clear that no one has the right to pollute our waters and any discharge of pollutants requires a permit.

The CWA rewrote the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act which had research funding but limited regulatory teeth. It is also connected to the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act. Back then, waste and encroachments were causing hazards for ships trying to dock. The Rivers and Harbors Act required permission by the U.S. Army Engineering Battalion for encroachments and dumping.

The CWA’s precedents go even further back. In 533 AD, Roman law was compiled and carved in stone at the Institutes of Justinian. The river, riverbed and banks, air, and sea were common to all. This foundation to English and European law ensured people could fish for food and sail past private property in the public trust. Today the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administer the CWA under the public trust doctrine.

The heart of the CWA is the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. EPA permits from this system provide standards to pollution-producing facilities and waterways that receive discharge. The CWA also authorizes the ACOE to regulate the disposal of dredged or fill materials to waters of the U.S.

The CWA jurisdiction is broadly described as navigable U.S. waters and the territorial seas, but protected waters were not precisely defined in the Act. The USACE and EPA developed the legal definition in a process that continues today via regulation, legislation and the courts.

CWA permit denials have been challenged in court based on the Constitution’s fifth amendment “takings” clause and the Commerce Clause. Between 1973 and 2008, EPA and USACE enacted differing definitions of “waters of the U.S.”. In 2008, the EPA and USACE issued joint jurisdictional guidance based on limits imposed in three Supreme Court cases. In 2015, the agencies tried again to clarify jurisdiction, but this guidance continued to be challenged in various district courts.

The result is that the 2015 guidance is in effect in 22 states, including Washington. and the District of Columbia. The other 28 states, including Idaho, are subject to the 2008 guidance. The debate is far from over with bills introduced into the current Congress to reduce the scope of the CWA’s jurisdiction and to maintain it according to 2015 rules. States and federally recognized tribes can promulgate water quality standards with EPA for CWA authority over waters they manage. Both the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and state of Idaho have CWA authority with regulatory and permit jurisdictions.

We have made great progress in cleaning up our waters. Many urban waterways are now suitable for fishing, canoeing and even swimming, but we have a long way to go. 50% of U.S. waterways are impaired, and there are many emerging threats like nanoplastics and pharmaceutical pollutants. The CWA continues to play an important role in the ongoing effort to protect our waterways.

References consulted in preparing this article:

County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund. 590 U. S. (2020).

Environmental Protection Agency. 2021. Introduction to the Clean Water Act.

Gross, J. M., & Dodge, Lynn. 2005. Clean Water Act. Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources, American Bar Association.

Gatz, L. & Mulligan, S.P. 2019. Waters of the United States (WOTUS): Repealing and Revising the 2015 Clean Water Rule. Congressional Research Service, Washington, D.C.

Hoch, S.L. 2019. Application of the Clean Water Act to groundwater is anathema to the water industry: An unfolding tale. Journal of the American Water Works Association 111:10, p. 58-63.

Hough, P. & Robertson, M. 2008. Mitigation under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act: where it comes from, what it means. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Papers, 269, p. 15-33.

Kovalic, J.M., and Kennelly, A. 1994. Clean Water Act of 1987. Water Environment Federation, Alexandria VA, ISBN: 978-0-943244-40-4

Mulligan, S.P. 2019. Evolution of the Meaning of "Waters of the United States" in the Clean Water Act. Congressional Research Service, Washington, D.C.

Pár Sáry. 2019. Water law rules in Ancient Rome. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Law, ISSN 1788-6171 14:26, p. 219-254 doi: 10.21029/JAEL.2019.26.219

Smith, M.D. 2016. A blast from the past: The public Trust Doctrine and its growing threat to water rights. Environmental Law, 46:3. P 461-480.

Wildeman, A. 2021. Guidance memorandum: Applying the Supreme Court’s County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund Decision in the Clean Water Act Section 402 National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit Program. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.

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