Clean Water Act50
A Waterkeeper Alliance Initiative 50 Years Anniversary

In October 2022, the Clean Water Act turned 50! Learn more about what it does and how we use it to combat emerging threats to the health of our waterways!

Organized by Waterkeeper Alliance, the ACT50 initiative celebrates this monumental legislation by looking back at our successes and strengthening the Act for the next 50 years of clean water.

Let’s dive in! Scroll down to learn and engage.

Before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, U.S. waters were severely contaminated by sewage, trash, oil, and toxic industrial pollution.

Large and small waters across the country were unsafe for human contact, water supplies, or fish consumption.

Only 85 million Americans were served by sewage treatment plants — that’s 40 percent. Untreated sewage was dumped directly into rivers and lakes.

An estimated two-thirds of all lakes, rivers, and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing and swimming.

The Potomac River was so polluted that Arlington, Virginia residents were advised to seek immediate medical attention if they had prolonged exposure to the water.

Today, the Act has dramatically reduced pollution and improved water quality across the country, but progress is threatened by deregulation, lack of enforcement, and other serious problems.

Major moments in Clean Water Act history


Now that you know the basics, let’s dive a little deeper

The Clean Water Act provides the public with strategies, resources, and tools to ensure our waterways are protected. These are a few of our favorites here at Waterkeeper Alliance:

Water Quality Assessment and Restoration:

EPA, states, and tribes are required to assess water quality and take action to restore polluted waters.

Citizen Rights and Enforcement:

The law provides citizens with robust rights to information and participation in water quality decision-making and permitting, including the right to enforce the Act in federal court when governments or polluters violate the law.

Supportive Resources, Funding, and Programs:

The law includes many programs to protect and restore watersheds through public-private partnerships, infrastructure supports, grant programs, and scientific, technical, and educational resources.

Let’s get technical! These are the four key provisions we make use of.

A provision is a statement in law that says what must be done.


Discharge Elimination Permits

Prohibit corporations, sewer plants, and others from using pipes, ditches, and similar conveyances to dump dangerous wastes, chemicals, and other pollution into water without a permit (Section 402 Permits – led primarily by states and tribes).


Dredge and Fill Permits

Prohibit dredging and filling of waters for mining, pipelines, and other development without a permit (Section 404 Permits – led primarily by the Corps).


State and Tribal Backstops

Allow states and tribes to evaluate federal permits involving pollution discharges to ensure they protect water quality (Section 401 Certification).


Technology Forcing and Water Quality-Based Pollution Standards

Require permits to include pollution controls, limits, and monitoring that protect public health and water quality needed for drinking water, fisheries, swimming, wildlife, shellfish, farming, and other uses. (Water Quality Standards and Effluent Limits).

The Victories

Clean Water protections have lead to real progress for watersheds across the United States.

You can explore the power and promise of the Act through our interactive map that highlights 50 key victories won by our movement.

How you can help

We've got a plan

ACT50 is a collective call for governments, Waterkeepers, and people like you to unite in the fight for clean water. Working together, we can ensure that water is drinkable, fishable, and swimmable by enforcing laws, holding polluters accountable, and empowering citizens. We’re prioritizing four key aspects of the Act where we can make real improvements. Take action with us today!

Waters of the United States


Waters of the United States - Starting in 2015, the U.S. EPA began redefining which waters can be protected from pollution and destruction under the Act. These unprecedented changes dramatically eliminated federal Clean Water Act protections for rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, and other waters across the country. We’re advocating for full restoration of clean water protections for U.S. waters; this includes asking EPA to restore the broad regulatory definition of “waters of the United States.”

Click here to act now!

Industrial Confined Animal Meat and Dairy Production


Currently, the multinational corporate animal agriculture industry enjoys a free pass to pollute U.S. air, land, and water, which harms farmers, communities, and people’s health. We must stop these practices and clean up pollution from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) through legislation, like the Farm System Reform Act, strengthening and enforcing regulations and permits, and ensuring transparency and opportunities for public participation in permitting decisions that dramatically impact their health and welfare.

Click here to act now!

Nonpoint Source and Stormwater Pollution


Nonpoint source pollution comes from multiple sources—such as agricultural, urban, and industrial runoff—and is the largest unaddressed source of water pollution in the country. This problem is made worse by the government’s failure to fully enforce Clean Water Act requirements for stormwater permits and combined sewer overflows—e.g., untreated discharges from sewer pipes that collect stormwater, raw sewage, and industrial waste. We’re advocating for the government to prioritize using newly available infrastructure funding to assist communities to clean up the pollution and regulatory authority to protect U.S. waters under the Clean Water Act.

Click here to act now!

Emerging Contaminants, PFAS, and Plastic


These largely unregulated pollutants are contaminating waters throughout the country and present new challenges that must be addressed urgently and systematically by the U.S. EPA under the Clean Water Act. While we are starting to make some progress on controlling PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (aka “forever chemicals”), we need EPA to prioritize using their existing authority and new infrastructure funding to work with other federal agencies and state and tribal governments to monitor, clean up, and place limits on the discharge of PFAS, emerging contaminants, and plastics, including on the industrial sources that produce them. We’re asking EPA to urgently prioritize these actions and are supporting the Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act and the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act to further control this pollution.

Click here to act now!