Implementing the Clean Water Act

Implementing the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, is one of the cornerstones of environmental law, and is a primary tool Gulf Restoration Network uses to protect the waters that flow into the Gulf of Mexico. This law basically follows GRN’s priorities regarding the protection of our waters:

  • Ensuring state water quality standards protect Gulf State waters.
  • Keeping clean waters clean.
  • Preventing sewage and industrial pollution from polluting rivers, streams and bayous.
  • Ensuring polluted waters are cleaned up.

By using the Act, we hope to realize its goal (albeit belatedly) to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters." The Act laid out as its main goals: (1) zero discharge of pollutants into waters of the United States by 1985 and (2) fishable and swimmable waters by 1983.

Ensuring State Water Quality Standards Protect Gulf State Waters

clean up your actUnder the Clean Water Act, states must establish water quality standards that define the goals and uses for a waterbody. These standards drive the development of water quality-based discharge permits, determine which waters must be cleaned up, how much waters must be cleaned up and which waters need protection from pollution.

Regretfully, Gulf states do not always establish protective standards. In a report released by GRN in 2009, entitled Clean Up Your Act! A Gulf State Report Card [pdf] , we examined each Gulf state's water quality policies.  The report grades the Gulf States on issues such as water quality standards, policies to prevent Dead Zone-causing pollution, public health protection and citizen participation in the policy-making process. Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas earned an average of a D+ for their implementation of the Clean Water Act of 1972. 

GRN works to monitor proposed changes to Gulf State standards, and submit technical and legal comments. With the help of our members and supporters, we strive to make these standards strong enough to comply with the law, as well as protect the people and wildlife that depend on these waters.

Keeping Clean Waters Clean

boating fishing canoeing
Photo credit: flickr user Peter Clark.

An important part of water quality standards is that states must have a plan to keep clean waters clean. This is known as “antidegradation.” Under these rules states must:

  1. not allow additional pollution in already polluted waters
  2. economically and socially justify discharge of pollutants into waters that are not considered polluted
  3. not allow any additional pollution in exceptional waters, known as Outstanding Natural Resource Waters (ONRWs)

Unfortunately, in many cases, the Gulf states are failing to live up to their obligations to keep clean waters clean. For example, Louisiana does not currently have an adequate implementation plan to justify the discharge of additional pollution in its cleaner streams and bayous. Louisiana is also currently attempting to weaken its rules that protect ONRWs.

In Mississippi GRN worked for several years pushing the state to develop a method to nominate waters as Outstanding Natural Resource Waters. However, now that Mississippi has had these procedures for several years, they have yet to designate even one water.

Preventing Sewage and Industrial Pollution

Under the Clean Water Act, all discharges of a pollutant from a discrete source (i.e. a pipe) require a permit. The Clean Water Act's primary "point source" control program is the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Point source is defined as "any discernible, confined, and discrete conveyance (any pipe, ditch, channel, or the like)." Thus, a NPDES permit must be obtained in order to legally discharge any pollutant into a waterbody.

With a focus on Louisiana and Mississippi, GRN monitors and submits public comments on draft water pollution permits. When we feel a permit does not comply with state and federal laws and regulations, we often challenge these permits. If our comments are not implemented, or if a facility is illegally discharging pollution into Gulf State waters, we are sometimes forced to take legal action. 

For more information on how we work to prevent water pollution to here.

Ensuring Polluted Waters are Cleaned Up

Every two years, states must submit their impaired waters lists to the EPA. The purpose of this list is to prioritize state waters and develop pollution reduction plans for these priority waters. The listing of impaired waters is the important first step to get polluted waters cleaned up. GRN works to monitor this process to make sure that polluted waters are not improperly or prematurely removed from the impaired waters lists.   

Once a waterbody is listed on the impaired waters list, a plan must be developed to clean this water up. These pollution reduction plans (also known as TMDLs, or Total Maximum Daily Loads) must outline how much of a pollutant must be removed from the water and a plan to do so.  

Many of the TMDLs developed in the Gulf states are not adequate to actually reduce the necessary pollution. GRN works to comment on and work with state agencies to ensure that TMDLs are prepared in a manner such that they will adequately reduce pollution. 

A special thanks to the River Network for providing the information used in this summary. For more information on the Clean Water Act, contact the River Network.

Additional Resources

Clean Up Your Act! A Gulf State Report Card [pdf]
Our Waters, Our Health, A Citizen's Guide to Sewage Pollution [pdf]
The Clean Water Act User's Manual