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The Clean Water Act & Safe Drinking Water Act: Legislation for Clean Water

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  • 0:04 Living with Clean Water
  • 1:19 Clean Water Act of 1972
  • 2:58 Safe Drinking Water…
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

In this lesson, you will learn about the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. You'll discover how both laws help keep our waters free of pollution and safe for everyday use.

Living with Clean Water

Try to go one day without using water for anything other than drinking and you'd have a pretty difficult time! We use water for so many things - washing dishes, doing laundry, cooking, drinking, watering houseplants, washing our cars, flushing the toilet, brushing your teeth - it all adds up pretty quickly!

If you then add up the water use for all of your friends and family, the consumption becomes even larger. Add that up for all the people in the U.S… well, you get the idea. So, with an ever-growing number of people using a finite supply of water, how do we ensure that it stays clean?

In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA) was created with environmental issues like this in mind. The EPA was designed with the idea that environmental problems are all interrelated and that an integrated approach to environmental policymaking was needed. They were charged with conducting research, monitoring environmental quality, setting standards for pollution levels, enforcing these standards, and educating the public. Much legislation has come from the EPA since it was created, and we'll discuss two of those laws here.

The Clean Water Act of 1972

By far, one of the most important laws that has come from the EPA is the Clean Water Act of 1972. This law made it illegal to discharge pollution from a point source without a permit, set new standards for industrial wastewater and contamination levels, and provided funding for sewage treatment plant construction. It also requires that wastewater that ends up in rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans be treated to remove toxins and bacteria. This law is the primary law that regulates water pollution in America.

The Clean Water Act is essentially a modified and expanded version of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, which was the first major law that dealt with U.S. water pollution issues. The Clean Water Act was revolutionary because it directly addressed the issue of point source pollution, which is pollution from a discrete location, such as industrial waste, agricultural runoff, and sewage pipes. The act set forth a new national permitting system for such sources of pollution, which standardized not only the rules regarding pollution but also the enforcement of those rules.

So, how bad was pollution before the Clean Water Act? During the 1950s and '60s, pollution was rampant in the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. Oil and industrial waste had been entering the river without regulation and not only had created unsafe drinking water for local residents, but actually caught fire several times! This disaster was instrumental in inciting the public to push for new and better water pollution legislation.

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974

Another critical piece of legislation was the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. This law set new standards for protecting groundwater and for the safety of the public drinking water supply. It's the primary law that ensures safe drinking water in America. One of the main differences between this Act and the Clean Water Act is that it addresses groundwater; the Clean Water Act does not.

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