History of the 1972 Clean Water Act: The Story Behind How the 1972 Act Became the Capstone on a Decade of Extraordinary Environmental Reform

56 Pages Posted: 5 May 2012

See all articles by N. William Hines

N. William Hines

University of Iowa - College of Law

Date Written: May 5, 2012


As the title suggests, this paper will trace the history of federal interventions in U.S. water pollution control from 1886 up to the adoption of the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act, which has provided the framework for federal programs to abate water pollution for the past forty years. After a brief description of the workings of state water pollution programs prior to the initiation of a major federal effort, the history of federal activity leading up to the 1972 Act will be set forth in three periods. The first period is the longest, but least active. It runs from the 1886 forerunner to the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act (more commonly known as the Refuse Act) to the halting start on building a national program represented by the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act. During the second period interest in developing a meaningful federal role in water pollution began to pick up speed. This period runs from adoption the 1948 Act as a temporary measure to the much more active federal role in overseeing the creation of water quality standards for interstate waters created by the 1965 Water Quality Act. The third period is one of almost frenetic activity in the environmental sector, when many of today’s most important programs to protect and preserve environmental resources were first adopted. This period runs from the 1965 Act to the 1972 Clean Water Act, which declared a national goal of eliminating all man-made water pollution and sought to implement achievement of that goal through a comprehensive federal regulatory strategy emphasizing technology-based effluent standards. Primary emphasis will be placed on the third period, and an effort will be made to locate precisely the origins of the major components of the 1972 Act in legislative initiatives and proposals leading up to its adoption. Considered in this connection will be such ideas as how to adapt basic principles of federalism to an effective nationwide program for regulating water pollution, the respective regulatory roles of “ambient water quality standards” and ”technology-based effluent standards,” and working out the proper linkages between them, distinguishing between “point sources” and “nonpoint sources” of water pollution, and designing different strategies for their control, and implementing a policy to assure “nondegradation” of existing high quality waters.

Keywords: Water Law, Environmental Law, Federal Water Pollution Control, Federal Water Quality Control, Federal Clean Water Act, History of Clean Water Act, Federal Environmental Law

Suggested Citation

Hines, N. William, History of the 1972 Clean Water Act: The Story Behind How the 1972 Act Became the Capstone on a Decade of Extraordinary Environmental Reform (May 5, 2012). U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 12-12, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2045069 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2045069

N. William Hines (Contact Author)

University of Iowa - College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States

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