Are the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act Enough?

The goals of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) were to “provide for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife” and “recreation in and on the water” leading to the elimination of all discharges of pollutants to waterways (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 179). These goals were supported by actions that focused primarily on reducing point source emissions while generally ignoring nonpoint sources, groundwater pollution, and hydromodification (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 177-178). While great reductions in pollution have been made in the subsequent decades, the goals to eliminate all discharges were infeasible and the scope of applying to “navigable waters” and point source pollution are not comprehensive enough to manage all the concerns with water pollution (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 180-181).

Similarly, the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was created to focus on the goal of providing oversight and standards for the nation’s drinking water supply “to protect against both naturally-occurring and man-made contaminates that may be found in drinking water” (Weinmeyer, et al. 2017, 1018). This act has also led to large improvements in drinking water quality, however, there are still many issues that include new and emerging contaminants that have made these goals hard to attain. The SDWA has run into issues with inadequate funding, ability to regulate small systems, new contaminants, cumulative risks of multiple pollutants, and reporting gaps (Weinmeyer, et al. 2017, 1022-1023).

These two acts have significantly improved the nation’s water systems but fall short in providing adequate protection to water quality emissions and consumption. While the CWA focused primarily on point source emissions, the Safe Drinking Water Act focused on what can be considered point source delivery. While nonpoint source pollution can impact the water quality of point source emissions and deliveries, overall, these two acts do not adequately cover nonpoint source pollution, groundwater pollution, or hydromodifications like oxygenation, temperature, or reservoir evaporation (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 177-178). While the SDWA has provisions to review contaminant lists that should be included for future compliance reporting, neither act adequately address the inundation of our waters with new contaminants like PFAS or PCBs (Weinmeyer, et al. 2017, 1020). Instead of taking a reactionary approach to chemicals that have known health impacts, a strong water quality protection act would take a precautionary principle approach and put the onus on polluters to show that additional chemicals they are emitting are safe. Funding, politics, and enforcement have been issues for both as well.

Establishing improved water quality acts will require stronger enforcement provisions and include funding mechanisms to ensure that appropriate actions can be taken since political interest waxes and wanes over time (Weinmeyer, et al. 2017, 1024). Overall, the CWA and SDWA were necessary and useful first steps in improving our nation’s water quality, however, stronger acts need to be implemented to ensure funding, enforcement, new chemicals, and advancing science is included to make for more efficient policy outcomes and continue the progress of cleaning up our nation’s waterways and drinking water.

Author: Logan Callen


Salzman, James, and Barton H. Jr. Thompson. 2019. Environmental Law and Policy. 5th ed. St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press.

Weinmeyer, Richard, Annalise Norling, Margaret Kawarski, and Estelle Higgins. 2017. “The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and its Role in Providing Access to Safe Drinking Water in the United States.” AMA Journal of Ethics 19 (10): 1018-1026.

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