Clean Water Act

Fourty-one years ago (1972), in a remarkable display of bipartisan unity in Congress, Republicans and Democrats crafted a landmark piece of environmental law later known as the Clean Water Act (CWA). Congress stated very clearly that the goal of the CWA was “To restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

The Clean Water Act authorizes individual states to administer a Water Quality Standards Program. Most states, including Kentucky, are authorized to administer their own program. Water quality standards are the backbone of the Act – and sets the goals and objectives into federal and state law and regulation.

If a state’s Water Quality Standards are strong, the program will make citizens and the government’s job of cleaning up polluted waters or maintaining the good water quality in clean waters much easier. If  Water Quality Standards are weak, protecting our waterways can be an uphill battle since some harmful activities will be legal.

Water Quality Standards are waterbody specific. That is every river, stream, and lake has a specific set of water quality standards and different standards apply to various waters.

Major components of water quality standards

There are three major components to every state’s Water Quality Standards Program:

  1. Designated Uses – Every water body must have one or more designated uses that the state and EPA officially recognize and protect.
  2. Water Quality Criteria – The state must develop a set of water quality criteria that will protect each designated use.
  3. Antidegradation – The state’s antidegradation policy and procedures are intended to form the foundation that supports designated uses and water quality criteria. Antidegradation should always protect all designated uses. In addition, it should hold the line and not allow polluted waters to become more polluted, and it should keep clean waters clean while giving very strict protection to outstanding waters.

These items act as three-step approach to protecting, maintaining and restoring water quality. Designated uses and water quality criteria provide the minimum goals for a water body and seek to reduce pollution to meet the minimum water quality levels that support the designated uses. Antidegradation provides a framework for maintaining and protecting high quality waters, controlling degradation of waters currently exceeding minimum quality requirements, and preventing pollution from interfering with uses in all waters.

The program sets goals, limits, and rules for each water body and it drives the limits and restrictions states or EPA place on discharge permits. It also determines what water bodies must be cleaned up, the extent to which they must be cleaned up (Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL program), and what clean waters need protection to ensure they remain clean. The state’s Water Quality Standards are reviewed every three years in what is known as a Triennial Review.

The CWA also charges the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and each state with the responsibility of permitting impacts to the “waters of the U.S.”, which includes most streams and wetlands.  Just in case you want to learn more about that, #go here.