Meeting the Needs of the People

Fish Consumption Rates in the Pacific Northwest

Wendee Nicole


Environ Health Perspect. 2013;121(11) 

In This Article

Clean Water Act Redux

More than 40 years have elapsed since the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972,[10] or Clean Water Act, passed both houses of Congress in a bipartisan manner. President Richard M. Nixon balked at the Act's $24-billion price tag and vetoed it, but momentum to clean up the nation's waterways proved strong enough that Congress overrode his veto. Indignant, Nixon impounded half the funds, leading to a 1975 Supreme Court case that ruled "the President cannot frustrate the will of Congress by killing a program through impoundment."[11]

The law's goal "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters" included optimistic provisos calling for elimination of all pollution discharges into navigable waterways by 1985 and, in the meantime, "an interim goal of water quality which provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation in and on the water … by July 1, 1983."[12] Many refer to this as the Act's "fishable/swimmable" clause.

The legislation established the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which requires entities discharging waste into waterways to obtain permits and obliged states to establish either narrative or numeric water quality standards[13] for both aquatic and human health, which the EPA had to approve.[14]

States were slow to enact their own standards, so Congress passed new amendments in 1977 and 1981. Among other things, these amendments required the EPA to develop suggested ambient water quality criteria for 126 priority pollutants as a guide for the states.[15] The criteria represent the highest concentration of each pollutant at which there is not expected to be a significant risk of either cancer or systemic toxicity (i.e., noncancer effects) in humans.[16] These criteria help determine the maximum amount of specific pollutants allowable in effluent.[14]