Clean Water Act

Scope of the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was created to apply broadly to all “waters of the United States.” However, Supreme Court cases narrowly interpreted the application of the CWA (SWANCC in 2001 and Rapanos in 2006), thereby placing an estimated two million miles of streams at-risk of pollution and destruction. Small streams and wetlands that are the capillaries of our river systems have been especially vulnerable following these Supreme Court cases and related Agency guidance. The confusion in the scope of the CWA led to decreased enforcement for violations and to some waters losing protections altogether.

The U.S. EPA finalized the Clean Water Rule in May 2015 to clarify which waters are protected under the Act and restores protections for many of the two million stream miles that have been at-risk. This rule is broadly supported by over 80% of Americans polled. In addition to a long public comment period, EPA listened to communities all around the country, making adjustments to the rule to make it as clear as possible. The rule does not protect as many waters as were originally covered under the law (see the EPA fact sheet below for a good comparison), but is consistent with the science associated with the connectivity of waters and the legal principles established by the Supreme Court cases. The EPA has now proposed to repeal the Clean Water Rule. Public comment was taken on that proposal until September 27, 2017, and an estimated 500,000+ comments were received. The agency is now holding listening sessions targeted at different categories to solicit feedback on the replacement of the rule.

Learn More

More About the Clean Water Act

Water Quality Standards

Water quality standards are the building blocks for all kinds of efforts to protect and restore our rivers, lakes and wetlands.

  • Water Quality Standards 101 Webinar by River Network – This is a 101-level training, suitable for river and watershed organizations, land trusts, tribal governments, and wildlife or lands groups interested in better understanding the power of one of the Clean Water Act’s core programs.
  • Using Biocriteria in the Real World Webinar – This intermediate webinar will provide an understanding of bioassessement, biocritiera, and the possible power of those tools in protecting and restoring your watershed.
  • The Clean Water Act through a Biological Lens Webinar  – One of the Act’s goals is to protect “biological integrity” – what does that mean and how is it applied?

Water Quality Certification

Section 401 is a powerful tool for protecting clean water (and sometimes flows!) from federally permitted activities.

Point Source Pollution and Permits

Point sources of pollution such as wastewater treatment plants, industrial facilities, concentrated animal feeding operations or stormwater systems, are regulated under the Clean Water Act’s NPDES program. Learn more about how this important program works.

  • Point Source Pollution Permits 101 Webinar – this beginning webinar cover the basics of permitting, how to review permits and where to find further resources.
  • Stormwater Discharge Permits Webinar – Municipal stormwater controls falls under the Clean Water Act’s permitting system and this webinar explains the municipal permitting system, what’s required and how to review them.
  • Permit Comments – River Network has assisted groups to analyze Clean Water Act permits.

Tribal Role in Implementing the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act Owner’s Manual

River Network developed a user-friendly guide to the foundational programs of the Clean Water Act. The Owner’s Manual is available for download.