The Clean Water Act (CWA) is one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation ever passed in our country. The CWA has resulted in dramatic improvements in water quality, yet much work remains to fulfill the original goal of the act – that all waters of the United States are “fishable” and “swimmable.” The Waterkeeper Alliance has identified four key aspects of the CWA where we can make real improvements and get closer to finally cleaning up all of our waterways.


History of the CWA

  • The Clean Water Act (CWA) was the result of sweeping amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948.
  • The CWA passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support of the legislature – 366 to 11 in the House and 74-0 in the Senate.
  • After President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill due to its perceived economic costs, the legislature overruled the veto, and the bill became law on October 18, 1972.
  • The CWA authorized financial assistance for the construction of municipal sewage treatment plants and established regulatory requirements for point sources of pollution from industrial and municipal dischargers. The law mandated the protection of any waters of the United States with a “significant nexus” to navigable waters.
  • In 1987, amendments to the law were passed to address nonpoint sources of pollution.
  • Two goals were established by the CWA – an interim goal that all waters are “fishable” and “swimmable” by 1983 and zero discharge of pollutants by 1985. While those dates have passed, the goals remain.

Impact on the St. Johns River

  • A 1966 article in the Ocala Star-Banner stated, “Like a gigantic sewer, loaded with human wastes, oil and toxic acids, the St. Johns River pours a flood of corruption into the Atlantic Ocean….Ninety percent of the raw human sewage dumped in all of Florida’s rivers goes into the St. Johns in Duval County. Tributaries feeding into it are open sewers.”
  • In 1969, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported, “A U.S. Senator called the St. Johns River a cesspool….Tanzler told Sen. Jennings Randolph D-W.Va., city government dumps 15 million gallons of raw sewage in the St. Johns every day and private industry adds 90 million gallons.”
  • According to a 1971 article in the Daytona Beach Morning Journal, “The Duval County Health Dept. reported that one could contract 27 communicable diseases by swimming across the St. Johns near the Main Street Bridge.”
  • By 1977, Jacksonville had ended the pumping of raw sewage and unregulated discharges of pollution into the river and celebrated the partial cleanup of the river by hosting its first St. Johns River Day Festival. To demonstrate the progress, Mayor Hans Tanzler water-skied at the event.

Where We Are Today

  • Before the CWA, an estimate two-thirds of all lakes, rivers, and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing and swimming. Today, the Act has significantly reduced pollution and improved water quality across the country.
  • However, many waters remain polluted and progress is threatened by deregulation, lack of enforcement, and other serious problems.
  • Due to governmental failures to implement and enforce the Act, citizen groups like St. Johns RIVERKEEPER have often had to take legal action. We have successfully sued to require more aggressive reductions of nitrogen, prevent sewage spills, and stop the illegal discharge of wastewater and pollution into our river.
  • According to the latest Integrated Water Quality Assessment for Florida, “DEP assessed 4,187 waterbody segments and found 2,148 were impaired.” This means that nearly half of the assessed waterbodies do not meet water quality standards for one or more pollutants.
  • According to The Clean Water at 50, a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project, 99.6% of assessed square miles of estuaries in Florida are impaired.

Learn more about the Clean Water Act from the Waterkeeper Alliance.