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,” and the scope of the Act determines which waters are protected under the law. 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. As the capillaries of our river systems, small streams and wetlands are critical to protecting clean water and reducing downstream flooding. Small streams were especially vulnerable following these Supreme Court cases and related Agency guidance, leading to confusion about the scope of the CWA, decreased enforcement for violations and some waters losing protections altogether.

To address this confusion, in 2015 the Obama Administration finalized the Clean Water Rule to clarify which waters are protected under the Act and restore protections for many of the two million stream miles that have been at-risk. This rule was 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 Clean Water Rule did not protect as many waters as were originally covered under the CWA, but is consistent with the science associated with the connectivity of waters and the legal principles established by the Supreme Court cases.

Under the Trump Administration, the EPA has proposed to repeal the Clean Water Rule and replace it with a Dirty Water Rule. The proposal advanced by the Trump Administration is based on an extremely narrow interpretation of CWA jurisdiction, which was rejected by the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court and the previous two administrations and excludes many waterbodies – including ephemeral streams and so called isolated wetlands – from protection.

The Dirty Water Rule makes no scientific, legal, public health, or fiscal sense. Wetlands and streams that don’t flow year-round are connected to larger water bodies that feed drinking water sources and provide habitat. Wiping out clear Clean Water Act protections from these vital parts of our natural water infrastructure will put larger streams, wetlands, and lakes at risk of pollution and destruction

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 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.

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.