Clean Water Act

A Brief History

Cuyahoga River on FirePollution of Cuyahoga River

Do you remember the Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio, located not too far from Cleveland? Those of us old enough to remember can still summon up our amazement upon hearing that it had caught fire. It seemed impossible, as a nation, we had allowed our waterways to become that polluted. As it turns out, fires had plagued the Cuyahoga River for years, beginning as early as 1936, when an errant spark from a blowtorch ignited floating debris and oil.

The river erupted in fire several times over the years. But, on June 22, 1969, Time Magazine focused the nation's attention on the Cuyahoga River with an article, part of which described the river as "oozes rather than flows" and in which a person "does not drown but decays." This truly was a seminal event. It helped spur an avalanche of pollution control activities that ultimately resulted in the Clean Water Act and the creation of the federal and state Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA).

Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, is still, today, the cornerstone of surface water quality protection in the United States. The goal of the Clean Water Act is nothing less then the restoration and maintenance of the nation's waters so that they can support "the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife, and recreation in and on the water."

The initial emphasis of the Clean Water Act was on point source pollution – discharges from industry and municipal sewage facilities – discharges that could be identified as coming from a specific source, a specific point. And that continues to be a major part of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program (NPDES program). But after years of issuing NPDES permits and regulating dischargers, it became clear that there was a more serious contributor to the problem of maintaining water quality then initially thought.

With the passage of the Water Quality Act in 1987, the EPA required states to regulate stormwater runoff and to prepare nonpoint source management programs, (programs to manage nondirect sources), because, as it turns out, stormwater runoff from impervious areas, such as, city streets, buildings, construction sites, and farms, happen to be the biggest source of pollution - the number one threat to our surface water quality.

Phase I Communities

The City of Winston-Salem is a Phase I community. That means that we were part of the first wave of cities (those with a population over 100,000) that were mandated under the Water Quality Act of 1987 to develop a stormwater management program. We received our NPDES permit and began our stormwater utility program in 1995.

Phase II Communities

Phase II expands the scope of the NPDES program to include smaller local governments serving populations of less than 100,000 (or communities with a population of 1,000 people or more per square mile). The stormwater phase II rules require most municipalities and local governments to obtain NPDES permit coverage.

These local governments must all have in place a stormwater management program that will include the development and implementation of six specified measures that reduce stormwater pollution. These include the following:

  • Construction Site Storm Water Runoff Control
  • Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination
  • Pollution Prevention/Good Housekeeping for Municipal Operations
  • Post-Construction Stormwater Management in New Development and Redevelopment
  • Public Education and Outreach on Storm Water Impacts
  • Public Involvement and Participation