Library Index » Science Encyclopedia » Surface Water: Rivers and Lakes - Characteristics Of Rivers And Lakes, The Need For Pollution Control, Assessing Water Quality, Water Quality Of The Nation's Riversand Streams

Surface Water: Rivers and Lakes - The Need For Pollution Control

quality epa project cwa

People have always congregated on the shores of lakes and rivers. They established permanent homes, then towns, cities, and industries, benefiting from the many advantages of nearby water sources. One of these advantages has been that lakes or rivers were convenient places to dispose of waste. As industrial societies developed, the amount of waste became enormous. Frequently, the waste contained synthetic and toxic materials that could not be assimilated by the waters' ecosystems. Millions of tons of sewage, pesticides, chemicals, and garbage were dumped into waterways worldwide until there were few that were not contaminated to some extent. Some were—and some still are—contaminated to the point of ecological "death," unable to sustain a balanced aquatic-life system.

Clean Water Act

On October 18, 2002, President George W. Bush proclaimed the beginning of the Year of Clean Water in commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the Clean Water Act (CWA), the full name of which is the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (PL 92–500).

The CWA was enacted by Congress in 1972 in response to growing public concern over the nation's polluted waters. The problem of environmental pollution was thrust into the public consciousness when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames on June 22, 1969, the result of oil and debris that had accumulated on the river's surface.

The objective of the CWA was to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters." The law is jointly enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Act requires that, where attainable, water quality be such that it "provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation in and on the water." This requirement is referred to as the act's "fishable/swimmable" goal. Many people credit the Clean Water Act with reversing, in a single generation, what had been a decline in the health of the nation's water since the mid-nineteenth century.

Water-quality standards are the driving force of the CWA. A water-quality standard has three components:

  • Designated uses—The CWA envisions that all waters, at a minimum, be able to be used for recreation and the protection and propagation of aquatic life (fish and shellfish, and the plants, insects, and other organisms that are required to support them). Examples of additional uses are drinking water and water where the fish are safe to eat. Water bodies frequently have more than one designated use.
  • Criteria—The numerical or narrative limits assigned to protect each use. Examples are chemical-specific levels (numerical) that protect humans or fish from exposure to levels that may cause harm, or descriptions (narrative) of the best-possible biological condition of aquatic communities.
  • Antidegradation policy—A statement of intent to prevent waters that meet their standards from deteriorating from their current condition.

Each state is required under the CWA to adopt water-quality standards for each of its water bodies. The EPA is required to approve each state's standards. Each state must specifically designate a use for every surface-water body in the state. The state then establishes water-quality numeric and narrative criteria to protect each use. More than one designated use is frequently assigned to a water body. Most water bodies are designated for recreation, drinking-water use, and protection of aquatic life. For water bodies with more than one designated use, the states consolidate the individual use support information into a summary use. Figure 3.1 lists the summary uses.

The states collect data and other information that allow them to assess whether the quality of their water meets the designated uses expressed in the water-quality standards that each state sets. Under section 305(b) of the CWA, the states are required to submit assessments of their water quality to the EPA every two years. The EPA is required to summarize this information in a biennial report to Congress. As of the spring of 2005, the most recent EPA report to have been published was the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, though some state-level data reported to the EPA is available online at

The CWA also established the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). This program requires anyone who discharges pollutants to get a permit. Congress intended that, after the EPA had established regulations for obtaining a NPDES permit, each state would be granted "primacy." Primacy means that the states would have the primary responsibility for issuing permits and enforcing the requirements of the NPDES program. To be given primacy by the EPA, a state must adopt NPDES regulations and conduct monitoring and enforcement programs at least as stringent as those established by the EPA.

Agriculture Takes Up the Challenge

According to 2002 Census of Agriculture (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, June 2004), about 938 million acres, or roughly half of the continental United States, is used for agricultural production. Cropland accounts for 46% of the acreage, while pasture and range land make up another 40%. Agricultural land use is recognized in many jurisdictions and localities throughout the United States as FIGURE 3.1
Levels of summary use support
SOURCE: "Levels of Summary Use Support," in National Water Quality Inventory: 1996 Report to Congress, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1998
the most desirable land use for economic, environmental, and social reasons. At the same time, the public and the agricultural community recognize that agricultural practices are a source of nonpoint pollution nationwide. (Nonpoint pollution is caused by runoff that has dispersed to areas outside of its origin.) This situation presents a challenge to water-quality management efforts.

The growing national concern over water-quality degradation has also permeated the agricultural community. There has been a steady increase in the use of best management practices and implementation of farm water-quality plans to protect wetlands and water bodies. The success of this effort can be seen in the decrease since 1982 in soil erosion reported in the National Resources Inventory—2001 Annual NRI (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, July 2003). (See Figure 3.2.) (Note that the amount of soil erosion remained at a steady level from 1997 to 2001.) The USDA, together with state and local agencies, is providing technical assistance and financial incentives through numerous programs to help farmers balance good stewardship of natural resources with market demands. Technical assistance through these programs has had success in getting farmers to voluntarily adopt more environmentally sensitive practices.


Grant money for use in supporting environmental projects is made available under FIGURE 3.2
Changes in erosion, 1982–2001
SOURCE: "Erosion on Cropland, 1982–2001," in National Resources Inventory, 2001 Annual NRI, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, July 2003, (accessed March 30, 2005)
the Clean Water Act. These funds have been instrumental in the development of many programs that have been successful in restoring and repairing impaired watersheds across the United States. In 1994 the EPA published the first in a series of reports highlighting successful programs developed under section 319 of the CWA. As of 2005 the most recent report is Section 319 Success Stories, Volume III: The Successful Implementation of the Clean Water Act's Section 319 Nonpoint Source Pollution Program (Washington, DC: EPA, February 2002).

One of the many stories highlighted in this publication is that of the Little Rabbit River Watershed Project, which was designed to improve the water quality in the Little Rabbit River Watershed in southwest Michigan. The dominant land use in the watershed is agriculture. The primary means identified for accomplishing the goal was to reduce the amount of sediment and nutrients entering the surface water. A section 319 CWA watershed grant in the amount of $380,936 was awarded to the Allegan Conservation District for use in implementing the Little Rabbit River Watershed Project.

As reported in the EPA's Section 319 Success Stories, Volume III, the success of this project was measurable within the first three years. A total of 19,852 tons of sediment was prevented from entering the Little Rabbit River during the first three years of the project. Nutrients entering the system were also reduced. A total of 19,706 pounds of phosphorus and 39,321 pounds of nitrogen was kept from entering the watershed due to the project.

The implementation of best management practices (BMPs) by landowners in the area was credited for the pollution abatement success. The project required a partnership between government agencies, local governing bodies, and landowners in the area. Together these stakeholders took the following actions, among others, that led to the success of the Little Rabbit River Watershed Project.

  • Installed eighteen acres of filter strips
  • Restored more than nine acres of wetlands
  • Installed four stream crossings and a watering facility
  • Stabilized 190 linear feet of stream bank
  • Built five animal waste storage facilities
  • Implemented mulch-till and no-till practices on 3,000 acres

Although the section 319 portion of the project was completed in 2000, water quality improvements and protection efforts continue in the area. Awareness of water quality issues in the community increased during the project, and the BMPs put into place during the project itself continue to reduce the entry of silt and nutrients into the watershed.

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