Green Room: Clean Water Act

Do you know about the Clean Water Act? It is a law that regulates discharges to waterways in the United States. First passed in 1948 and rewritten in 1972, the Clean Water Act fundamentally changed the ways in which water pollution is regulated, monitored, and mitigated in our nation. The City of Goleta understands the importance of the Clean Water Act and hopes to educate the community on how this law protects our health and environment. 

What is the purpose and goal of the Clean Water Act? 

The Clean Water Act was enacted to preserve the environmental integrity of our nation’s waters. The Act is designed to preserve local habitats and ecosystems, as well as protect Americans from the detrimental public health impacts associated with degraded water quality.  

How does the Clean Water Act regulate and manage pollution? 

Point Sources

To regulate point source pollution, the Clean Water Act introduced a new permitting system called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). This system requires point source dischargers, such as industrial facilities, municipal governments, and some agricultural facilities, to be permitted. Under the Clean Water Act, these entities cannot discharge into surface water without a NPDES permit. To hold an NPDES permit, the discharger must meet specific standard for pollution control technologies.  

Furthermore, The Clean Water Act also regulates point source dischargers by requiring they adhere to water quality standards. Compliance with water quality standards may require the discharger to acquire additional technologies to protect specific water bodies with degraded water quality.  

Non-Point Sources 

The 1972-version of the Clean Water Act was relatively vague on the permitting requirements for some non-point source discharges, including agricultural and urban stormwater runoff. Initially, stormwater runoff was largely exempt from permitting requirements. However, in the 1980s, the U.S. conducted a nationwide study of water quality impairments due to urban stormwater runoff. After much research, policy design, and litigation, the Water Quality Act of 1987 addressed urban stormwater pollution by specifying municipal separate storm sewer systems (often called “MS4”) and other industrial stormwater dischargers were point sources. Now, these entities are considered dischargers, and required to obtain NPDES permits. The City of Goleta is considered a small MS4, as defined by the Act, and therefore is required to adhere to permitting regulations and deadlines.  

To learn more about the difference between point source and non-point source pollution, please see the June Green Room Article, entitled “Point Source vs. Non-Point Source Pollution”.  

What human health impacts are associated with exposure to water contaminants? 

Many of the most common water toxicants are associated with dangerous, and sometimes lethal, health impacts. Contaminants can be physical (suspended particles, etc.), chemical (lead, nitrates, pesticides), or biological (bacteria, viruses, parasites) agents. These agents can cause acute and chronic toxicological impacts, such as neurological diseases, renal (kidney) diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, reproductive conditions, and developmental delays/abnormalities.  

Disadvantaged communities often face the highest burden of disease due to environmental pollution. Often, these communities lack adequate resources to capital and information to mitigate exposure to contaminants, as well as disease progression. Epidemiological studies have found correlations between socioeconomic status and environmental health risk, illustrating that the communities most vulnerable to the ills of water pollution are those of disadvantaged status. 

How does the recent Supreme Court ruling (Sackett v. EPA) impact the Clean Water Act?  

On May 25, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled on Sackett v. EPA, a case which questioned how the Clean Water Act regulated certain wetland areas. An Idaho couple (the Sacketts) sought to build on a boggy wetland area, but the EPA prohibited this construction, stating that this development would violate the Clean Water Act. According to the EPA legal team, the Clean Water Act protects “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), which includes wetlands, interconnected or otherwise. The Supreme Court disagreed with the EPA’s definition of WOTUS and ruled in favor of the Sacketts. Through this ruling, the Supreme Court made it clear that the Clean Water Act does not regulate permitting/development on wetlands without navigable waterways (lakes, rivers, etc.). This decision significantly narrowed the scope of the Clean Water Act, as many wetlands are now exempt from this regulation.  

How can I reduce stormwater pollution in the City of Goleta?  

To learn more about sources of water pollution, and strategies for mitigating pollution, please take a look at our brochure, entitled “The Ocean Begins on Your Street” in English and Spanish. If you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate to email us at