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2 Tutorials that teach Efforts to Address Water Pollution in the United States
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Efforts to Address Water Pollution in the United States

Efforts to Address Water Pollution in the United States

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Recognize the efforts to address water pollution in the United States.

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what's covered
This tutorial will cover the topic of efforts to address water pollution in the United States. We will discuss the historical background of environmental regulation, covering the relevant laws and policies that resulted from pressures on the federal government to act on environmental issues. We will discuss point and non-point source water pollutants, and the outcomes that have resulted both nationally and internationally from efforts to address water pollution.

Our discussion breaks down as follows:

  1. Historical Background of Water Regulation
  2. Water Pollution Laws and Regulations
    1. Refuse Act 1989
    2. Clean Water Act 1972
    3. Clean Water Act Amendment 1987
  3. Outcomes of Water Regulation

1. Historical Background of Water Regulation

Water pollution issues were originally handled by the state government, but widespread public environmental concern in the late 1960s and early 1970s changed this. The federal government began to take a more active role.

Date Event
1962 Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring was published in 1962, which discussed various pollution problems, particularly the effect of agricultural practices on waterways.
1969 The Cuyahoga River caught on fire in northeast Ohio due to water pollution. Time Magazine's article and cover photo caught public attention and led to call for water pollution control measures
1969 A large oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara spiked media coverage, increased public concern, and resulted in political action being taken.
1970 Earth Day became a national holiday in 1970 in an attempt to promote ecological stewardship.

2. Water Pollution Laws and Regulations

There have been several important laws and regulations enacted pertaining to United States' water quality.

2a. Refuse Act 1899
In 1969, citizen groups began taking advantage of the Refuse Act of 1899, which prohibited water pollution discharge if it was not approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The citizen groups used it to sue hundreds of industrial companies who were discharging pollutants into waterways. Even though it allowed the citizen groups to advocate for water quality, the Refuse Act was not intended for environmental regulation. Its purpose was to keep waterways clear enough to allow for naval navigation.

2b. Clean Water Act 1972

In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed by President Nixon's administration as a result of public pressure. Its goals were to manage U.S. waterways so that by July 1, 1983, all waters would be fishable and swimmable, while also eliminating the discharge of pollutants into waters by 1985.

President Nixon

The Clean Water Act originally only accounted for point source polluters. When states set water quality standards, they usually organize by uses, such as:

  • Public water supply
  • Bathing
  • Coldwater habitat
  • Warmwater habitat

Now the Environmental Protection Agency gives different industries water pollution limits. This includes public water treatment facilities.


Section 404 of the Clean Water Act regulates dredging and filling of navigable waters, even if they're wetlands, by issuing industries' permits through the Army Corps of Engineers, in order to assess negative impact to wetlands.

2c. Clean Water Act Amendment 1987
In 1987, the Clean Water Act was amended to account for non-point source polluters. States are now required to assess if their waterways are impacted by non-point polluters, as well as to develop programs to address problems. The amendment mostly granted funds and information for state projects to do things, such as:

  • Create riparian buffer zones
  • Educate citizens about not dumping certain wastes into their water systems
  • Training watershed partnership leaders

Addressing non-point source pollution is much more difficult than point source because it comes from a wide distribution of sources, and therefore it is hard to target the polluter. Efforts to mitigate non-point source pollution include:

  • Land use planning
  • Voluntary best management practices
  • Technical assistance for landowners
  • Cost sharing between landowners for things like riparian buffer zones

4. Outcomes of Water Regulation

Efforts to address water pollution in the United States has resulted in sewage treatment plants dramatically reducing water pollution. About half of U.S. waterways are now considered clean, and the most severe cases have been substantially improved and cleaned. International efforts have been primarily focused on agreements around protecting international waterways. While dozens of countries have signed agreements between each other to prevent water pollution, few have included any agreed-upon standards or requirements.

River Swimming

Today we learned about the historical background of environmental regulation, laws, and policies that resulted from the public pressure for cleaner waterways. We learned about the Clean Water Act of 1972, and how it only addressed point source polluters until 1987, when it was amended to include non-point sources as well. Finally, we discussed outcomes of the United States' efforts to address water pollution, as well as international efforts to do so.

Source: Adapted from Sophia instructor Jensen Morgan, RIVER SWIMMING CC HTTP://BIT.LY/193B0P9 NIXON PD HTTP://BIT.LY/16LL1BI