Clean Water Act FAQs

Home / News & Resources / Blog / Clean Water Act FAQs

Learn more about the Clean Water Act and read FAQs about its importance in wastewater treatment.

What is the Clean Water Act?

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the principal law governing the pollution of surface waters in the United States.

This federal legislation aims to protect the “chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” (CWA § 101) It helps create water quality standards and establishes the basic structure for regulating the discharge of pollutants into water.

What’s the main purpose of the act?

The main purpose of the Clean Water Act is to uphold the water quality of the Nation’s waterways. It prohibits the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters, except by special permit.

What are the act’s key elements?

The Clean Water Act puts regulatory responsibility on point sources*, like wastewater treatment plants, to:

  • Prevent water pollution
  • Obtain discharge permits
  • Meet water quality standards
  • Develop risk management plans
  • Monitor and maintain effluent records

* A point source is a single, identifiable source, like a discharge pipe or smokestack. A non-point source can come from many places and does not originate from a single source; rainwater runoff is an example.

When did the act take effect?

The Clean Water Act was originally enacted as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1948. On October 18, 1972, it was revised by amendments spelling out the programs for water quality improvement which we follow today. 2022 marks its 50th anniversary.

Hear a message from Chief Engineer & Director Michael Mucha about how the Clean Water Act impacts wastewater treatment. The act celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022.

How is the CWA enforced?

The Clean Water Act specifies that discharges into the nation’s waters are against the law unless you are specifically authorized by a permit.

The District operates under permits issued by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Our DNR permits cover our effluent limits, water quality monitoring and reporting, emissions, stormwater runoff and other important information. These permits ensure that our operations are conducted in a way that protects public health and the environment.

What happens if someone violates their permits?

Our District is committed to providing safe and reliable wastewater treatment and resource recovery for our communities. We adhere to safeguards and systems to maintain the safety and integrity of area citizens and local waterways.

However, if a person or business violates their permit, they can be subject to thousands of dollars in fines each day. Severe violations can be as much as $250,000 and 15 years in prison.

Why is the Clean Water Act important?

The Clean Water Act is essential to protect the nation’s water resources, now and for the future.

Why is the Clean Water Act important to the District?

Our mission at the District is to protect public health and environment through responsible wastewater collection and treatment.

As water stewards, we manage water holistically and sustainably to respect every drop. We rely on effective operations management, resource recovery efforts, pollution prevention outreach, conservation leadership and sustainability programs to maintain high water quality standards and protect the environment.

We are leaders in innovation, seeking ways to creatively address and respond to impacts on our waters. For instance, we have a robust mercury reduction program. Mercury is a neurotoxin and just a small amount can degrade an entire waterbody. To minimize mercury in the wastewater system, we work with and educate local dental clinics on mercury pollution reduction. We have also innovated options to reduce phosphorus in effluent, or cleaned wastewater, through Yahara WINS and struvite harvesting. 

We embrace a One Water mantra, a view that recognizes that all water – drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, greywater and more – is one water. We know that water is a finite and interconnected resource that must be valued and respected.

You can learn more Pollution Prevention and how we put our One Water mantra in action in our blog and across our website. For more tips delivered by email six times per year, sign up for our e-newsletter offering helpful info on caring for our local waters.