Federal Water Pollution Control Act (the “Clean Water Act”)
Official Citation
33 U.S.C. §§1251-1387
ELR Citation
ELR STAT. FWPCA §§101-607
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Statute Outline


The objective of this statute is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. [FWPCA §101(a)]

Technology-based effluent limitations

Except as permitted by the statute, the discharge of any pollutant by any person is unlawful. [FWPCA §301(a)]

Effluent limitations from point sources (other than publicly owned treatment works (POTWs)) shall re­quire the application of the best practicable control technology (BPT). If any such source discharges into a POTW, the source must satisfy the applicable pretreatment requirements and requirements concerning toxic pollutants. [FWPCA §301(b)(1)(A)]

POTWs must comply with effluent limitations based on secondary treatment or comply with any stricter limitation required by water quality standards, treat­ment standards, or schedules of compliance under state or federal law, or any other federal law or regulation, or any limitation required to implement any applicable water quality standard. [FWPCA §301(b)(1)(B), (C)]

Point sources of toxic and nonconventional pollut­ants must comply with effluent limitations requiring the best available technology economically achievable (BAT). Nonconventional pollutants are those pol­lutants that are not toxic or conventional. [FWPCA §301(b)(2)]

Point sources of conventional pollutants (e.g., bio­logical oxygen demand, suspended solids, fecal coliform, pH) shall apply the best conventional pollutant control technology (BCT). [FWPCA §301(b)(2)(E)]

The statute establishes the circumstances under which the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may modify the requirements of ef­fluent limitations with respect to particular sources. [FWPCA §301(g)]

It is unlawful to discharge into navigable waters any radiological, chemical, or biological warfare agent; high-level radioactive waste; or medical waste. [FWPCA §301(f)]

Water quality-related effluent limitations

If, after the application of technology-based efflu­ent limitations, the effluent from a single point source or group of point sources would interfere with the at­tainment or maintenance of water quality in navigable waters that affect the public health, relate to public wa­ter supplies and industrial and agricultural uses, and support wildlife and recreation, the Administrator shall establish water quality effluent limitations for such sources. [FWPCA §302(a)]

The Administrator may modify the requirements of water quality-related effluent limitations under certain circumstances. [FWPCA §302(b)]

Water quality standards and implementation plans

State water quality standards for intrastate and interstate waters adopted before 1972 remain in effect. States that had not adopted intrastate water quality standards by 1972 are required to adopt such standards. [FWPCA §303(a)]

The statute establishes the procedures by which new water quality standards shall be issued and existing ones reviewed and modified. New and revised stan­dards shall protect the public health and welfare, en­hance the quality of water, and serve the statute’s pur­poses. [FWPCA § 303(c)]

Each state must identify those waters for which the effluent limitations established under the statute are not stringent enough to implement any water quality stan­dard applicable to such waters. A state must then estab­lish the total maximum daily load of pollutants that such waters can receive. [FWPCA §303(d)]

Each state is required to have a continuing planning process that will result in plans for all navigable waters within the state. These plans shall include effluent limi­tations at least as stringent as those required under the statute and at least as stringent as those required by appli­cable water quality standards. They shall also incorpo­rate areawide waste treatment management plans and total maximum daily loads. [FWPCA §303(e)]

New source performance standards

The Administrator shall propose and publish regula­tions establishing federal standards of performance for new sources. [FWPCA §306(b)(1)(B)]

In establishing or revising new source performance standards, the Administrator shall take into consider­ation the cost of achieving the effluent reduction, and any nonwater quality environmental impact and energy requirements. [FWPCA §306(b)(1)(B)]

Toxic and pretreatment effluent standards

The Administrator shall identify toxic pollutants for which the application of BAT is required. The Admin­istrator shall take into consideration a pollutant’s toxic­ity, persistence, and degradability; the presence and im­portance of affected organisms; and the nature of the pollutant’s effects on such organisms. [FWPCA §307(a)]

The Administrator may establish an effluent stan­dard imposing additional requirements on dischargers of a toxic pollutant. [FWPCA §307(a)]

The Administrator shall promulgate pretreatment standards for the introduction of pollutants into POTWs for those pollutants not susceptible to treat­ment by the POTWs or those that would interfere with the operation of such treatment works. [FWPCA §307(b)]

Inspections, monitoring, and entry

The Administrator shall require own­ers or operators of point sources to maintain records and monitoring to the extent necessary to carry out the statute’s objective. [FWPCA §308(a)]

The Administrator or the Administra­tor’s representatives shall have the right to enter the premises of point sources to inspect their recordkeeping and sample their effluent. [FWPCA §308(a)(4)(B)]

Oil and hazardous substance liability

It is the policy of the United States that there should be no discharges of oil or hazardous substances into navigable or territorial waters. [FWPCA §311(b)]

The Administrator shall develop a list of hazardous substances other than oil that present an imminent and substantial danger to the public health or welfare. [FWPCA §311(b)(2)]

The discharge of such hazardous substances in quan­tities determined by the President to be harmful is gen­erally prohibited. [FWPCA §311(b)(3)]

Any person in charge of a vessel or facility must, as soon as that person has knowledge of any lawful dis­charge of oil or hazardous substance, notify the federal government. Failure to notify is a criminal offense. [FWPCA §311(b)(5)]

Owners or operators of vessels and facilities shall be assessed civil penalties for unlawful discharges. [FWPCA §311(b)(7)(A)]

The President is authorized to undertake removal of oil and hazardous substances that have been dis­charged. [FWPCA §311(c)(1)]

 The President shall prepare a national contingency plan (NCP) to provide for efficient, coordinated, and effective action to minimize damage from such dis­charges. These actions include containment, removal, and dispersal. [FWPCA §311(d)]

Owners and operators of vessels that unlawfully dis­charge oil or hazardous substances shall be liable to the federal government for the costs of removal and of re­storing damaged natural resources. The statute estab­lishes certain affirmative defenses to liability. [FWPCA §311(f)]

The statute establishes ceilings for owner and operator liability, but liability for willful negligence or willful misconduct is unlimited. [FWPCA §311(f)]

Nonpoint source management programs

Each state shall prepare a report identifying waters that cannot reasonably be expected to comply with ap­plicable water quality standards without additional control of nonpoint sources of pollution, and catego­ries of nonpoint sources that significantly contribute to pollution in those waters. [FWPCA §319(a)(1)]

Each state shall submit a management program for the control of nonpoint source pollution that includes an identification of the best management practices that will be used to reduce pollution, an identification of programs (e.g., programs for enforcement, technical assistance, financial assistance, education, demonstra­tion projects) to be used to achieve implementation of such practices, and a timetable for implementation. [FWPCA §319(b)]

The statute establishes the procedures by which the Ad­ministrator may approve or disapprove such programs. [FWPCA §319(d)]


Any applicant for a federal license or permit to con­duct an activity that may result in discharge into naviga­ble waters shall first obtain certification from the state that the discharge will comply with the applicable ef­fluent limitations, water quality standards, new source performance standards, and toxic and pretreatment re­quirements. [FWPCA §401(a)]

National pollutant discharge elimination system (NPDES) permits

The Administrator is authorized to issue permits for the discharge of any pollutant or combination of pollut­ants on the condition that the discharge will meet the applicable requirements and standards of the statute. [FWPCA §402(a)(1)]

States desiring to administer their own permit pro­grams may submit such programs to the Administrator for approval. The statute establishes the procedures and conditions under which the Administrator shall ap­prove or disapprove such programs. [FWPCA §402(b)]

Where the Administrator approves a state permit program, the Administrator shall suspend EPA’s issu­ance of permits as to discharges subject to the program. [FWPCA §402(c)(1)]

Permits for dredged or fill material

The Army Corps of Engineers may issue permits (§404 permits) to control the discharge of dredged or fill material into navigable waters at specified sites. [FWPCA §404(a)]

A disposal site is to be designated for each permit ac­cording to guidelines jointly developed by the Corps and the Administrator. [FWPCA §404(b)]

The Administrator is authorized to veto the specifi­cation of a particular area as a disposal site whenever the Administrator determines that the discharge of dredged or fill materials in the area will have an unac­ceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas, wildlife, or recre­ational areas. [FWPCA §404(c)]

The statute authorizes the Corps to issue general permits on a state, regional, or nationwide basis for any category of activities that will cause only minimal envi­ronmental effects when performed separately, and will have only minimal adverse cumulative effects on the environment. General permits are limited to a maxi­mum of five years. [FWPCA §404(e)]

States wishing to administer their own dredge and fill permit programs may submit proposed programs to the Administrator for approval. The statute establishes the procedures and conditions under which the Adminis­trator shall approve or disapprove such programs. [FWPCA §404(g), (h)]

Where a state permit program is approved, the Corps shall suspend its own issuance of permits for activities covered under the program. [FWPCA §404(h)(5)]

Federal enforcement

Whenever a source violates a condition or limitation in its NPDES permit or dredge and fill permit, the Administrator shall either (1) notify the alleged viola­tor and the state, and issue a compliance order or bring a civil action if beyond the 30th day the state has not com­menced an appropriate action; or (2) issue a compliance order or bring a civil action. [FWPCA §309(a)]

The statute authorizes the assessment of judicial civil and criminal penalties, as well as administrative civil penalties, against violators. [FWPCA §309(c), (d), (g)]

General provisions

Where the Administrator receives notice that a pollu­tion source is presenting an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or livelihood, the Ad­ministrator may sue for immediate restraint of anyone causing or contributing to the pollution, or take any other action necessary. [FWPCA §504(a)]

Any person may bring a citizen suit against alleged violators or the Administrator. [FWPCA §505(a)]

The statute establishes certain procedural and jurisdic­tional rules pertaining to administrative proceedings and judicial review. [FWPCA §509]

States may not adopt any effluent limitations or other limitation, effluent standards, prohibition, pretreat­ment standard, or standard or performance that is less stringent than that provided under the statute. [FWPCA §510]

Federal facilities

Federal facilities shall comply with all federal, state, interstate, and local laws respecting the control and abatement of water pollution, although the President may grant exemptions. [FWPCA §313]

Grants for construction of treatment works

The Administrator shall encourage recycling of potential sewage pollutants, confined and contained disposal of pollutants not recycled, reclamation of wastewater, and ultimate disposal of sewage sludge in a manner that will not result in environmental hazards. [FWPCA §201(d)]

The Administrator is authorized to make grants to states and municipalities for the construction of POTWs. [FWPCA §201(g)]

The statute establishes the procedural and technological requirements for the issuance of grants for POTWs. [FWPCA §201(g)]

Before approving a grant for a POTW, the Adminis­trator shall determine that any required areawide waste treatment management plan exists or is being devel­oped and includes the proposed treatment works; that any required state implementation plan for water qual­ity standards exists or is being developed and the pro­posed treatment works will be in conformity with the plan; that the proposed POTW has priority construction status under the applicable state implementation plan; that the applicant has shown that the facility can be op­erated properly and efficiently; that the capacity of the proposed facility directly relates to the needs of the area it will serve; and that the specification for bids for the POTW does not contain proprietary or exclusionary standards other than those related to performance. [FWPCA §204(a)]

For each area identified by the Administrator to have substantial water quality control problems, the state governor must designate a representative organization to develop an effective areawide waste treatment plan (§208 plan) that will assess the future waste treat­ment needs of the area, identify the treatment works necessary to meet those needs, set up a regulatory pro­gram to control the location and construction of facili­ties that may produce discharge and to assure compli­ance with applicable pretreatment requirements, iden­tify and control nonpoint sources of pollution, and con­trol uses of dredged and fill material that adversely af­fect navigable waters. [FWPCA §208(b)]

Waste treatment management plans and practices shall provide for the application of the best practicable waste treatment technology before any discharge into receiving waters and shall provide for consideration of advanced waste treatment techniques. [FWPCA §201(b)]

To the extent practicable, waste treatment manage­ment shall be on an areawide basis and address both point and nonpoint sources of pollution. [FWPCA §201(c)]

Full Statute

The statute is available from the U.S. Government Publishing Office: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/USCODE-2017-title33/html/USCODE-2017-title33-chap26.htm