The story of federal involvement in water pollution control, and specifically the secondary treatment issue, is best told in two parts—before and after the passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, also known as the Clean Water Act (CWA). Before 1972, regulatory authority for water pollution control rested with the states. Federal involvement was limited to cases involving interstate waters. Unfortunately, there was a great diversity among the states in terms of willingness to pay the costs of building and upgrading POTWs and to enforce pollution control laws.
At the center of the problem was the idea that water pollution could be controlled by setting ambient water quality standards and that states would go after dischargers who caused those standards to be violated. In retrospect, this approach was an enforcement nightmare for several reasons (WEF, 1997):
• The enforcing agency had to prove a particular discharger was causing a water-body to be in violation of the ambient water quality standard. This was difficult because waste loads were allocated among all dischargers based on methods that were often open to interpretation.
• Most of the time, data with which to support the case against a discharger had to come from the discharger itself. Usually, there were no independent monitoring programs.
• Many waterbodies lacked water quality standards.
• There were few civil or criminal penalties that could be levied against dischargers who caused water quality standards to be violated.
As the state-led water quality standards approach continued to fail and water quality conditions continued to spiral downward, both water supply and water resource users looked to the federal government for leadership and relief. The CWA was designed to turn the water pollution control tables around completely, and it did. The following two subsections describe the federal role before and after passage of the CWA.
Was this article helpful?