Legislation, Federal Water

Federal involvement in water resource legislation initially addressed issues of water use, such as managing the commons (e.g., regulating fisheries) and regulating navigable waterways to support navigation and commerce. As the country grew westward, water legislation was used to fund massive water development projects to increase water supplies for irrigation, hydroelectricity, flood control, and municipal and industrial water supply. Finally, as water quality degraded across the country, federal legislation moved into

Federal water-related legislation runs the gamut from waterborne commerce to watershed restoration. The twentieth century witnessed an evolution from a few narrowly defined interests to broader, more integrated approaches.
Federal water-related legislation runs the gamut from waterborne commerce to watershed restoration. The twentieth century witnessed an evolution from a few narrowly defined interests to broader, more integrated approaches.
areas previously controlled by state and local governments by mandating nationwide water quality standards for waterways and standards for public drinking water. The following overview of selected statutes demonstrates this trend of legislation.

Navigation and Water Supply

The River and Harbors Act of 1899 banned dumping of nonliquid waste in navigable rivers without permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Although focused on keeping solid trash out of waterways to prevent navigational obstructions and to reduce pier fires caused by burning trash, this act often is cited as the first act related to water quality.

The Reclamation Act of 1902 was enacted to build irrigation projects in the dry western states and territories. The act also created the Reclamation Service (now called the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation) to build dams and delivery systems that would supply the irrigation projects. An assured water supply in this arid region was needed to ensure successful settlement of the West so the government could maintain control over these sparsely populated lands. The Bureau has built hundreds of dams in the West, with communities and farmlands still enjoying affordable, federally subsidized water from these water projects.

The Federal Water Power Act of 1920 created the Federal Power Commission, which would control hydroelectric dam construction on all navigable rivers. This allowed the federal government to regulate private electric utilities by requiring operating licenses. The government also built hydroelectric dams in order to provide affordable electricity and encourage private electric companies to offer comparable prices.

Water Quality

The slow degradation of American water quality was first addressed by the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, which addressed water pollution from solid and liquid wastes. Prior to this act, water quality had been considered only a local concern. Because the U.S. Congress never appropriated money to fund the grants for planning studies and sewage treatment plants, this act was ineffective.

The 1956 amendments gave federal authority over water quality in interstate streams (i.e., streams flowing across multiple states). The 1961 amendments added that some water stored in federal reservoirs could be used to dilute pollution on some streams, but that sewage treatment plants still needed to be built. The 1965 amendments, also known as the Water Quality Act, created the first water standards and mandated a water quality assessment program of the nation's waters. However, these standards were not effective and were not enforced.

Clean Water Act.

Increasing water-quality problems eventually resulted in the 1972 amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, commonly known as the Clean Water Act. The objective of this act was to restore and maintain the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters. Waters were to become fishable and swimmable by 1983, and receive zero discharge of pollutants by 1985. Toxic chemicals in the nation's waters were recognized as a major concern.

The Clean Water Act created specific water quality standards, and started the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, wherein discharges from a point source into any waterway were required to have a permit. Even with these mandated water quality standards, more than 40 percent of assessed waters today still do not meet the standards set for them. The act requires states to develop lists of impaired waters, to develop priority rankings for action, and to develop total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for these waters. A TMDL sets a specific amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can receive from both point sources and nonpoint sources . The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must approve these lists.

Billions of dollars were spent in the 1970s funding sewage treatment plant construction and improvement. The 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act added more money for sewage treatment plants; created stormwater regulations for treating nonpoint-source pollution from urban areas; and focused more attention toward nonpoint-source pollution prevention programs.

Drinking-Water Standards.

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, amended in 1986 and 1996, was the first federal law mandating drinking-water standards for all public water systems, ranging from big cities down to roadside campgrounds. Under the original legislation, public water systems were required to follow water quality standards for particular contaminants . Water systems must be tested for these contaminants and, if necessary, the water is treated to reduce contaminants to the maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) set for each contaminant. The amendments added new contaminants and new programs to bolster the protection of public health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has primary enforcement responsibility.

Water Resources Planning

Although national water resources planning had been tried in the early twentieth century, albeit in several weak formats, a new attempt was made in the 1960s after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposed building two more dams on the Colorado River. The Water Resources Planning Act of 1965 created federal-state river basin commissions to promote better water resources planning and to support economic development. It also created the Water Resources Council, a federal integrated water resource planning entity that would coordinate the seven river basin commissions. The Council would also provide biennial water resources assessments, review Army Corps of Engineers plans for navigable waters, promote research, and provide public education. This council was comprised of the secretaries of Agriculture, Interior, Army, Health, and Education, as well as the chairman of the Federal Power Commission.

The Water Resources Council produced the Principles and Guidelines, which were decision-making guidelines for evaluating federally funded water projects and allocating water not just by considering its economic highest use, but also by incorporating social values for how water and land were used. The Principles and Guidelines replaced the so-called "Green Book" of 1950 (whose formal name was Proposed Practices for Economic Analysis of River Basin Projects ), the standard manual used for cost–benefit analysis of water projects that did not include social values. The council ceased to exist in 1981 when federal funding was eliminated.

Development and Restoration

The Water Resources Development Act of 1986 was different from previous omnibus (multi-component) water bills in that it emphasized a "beneficiary pays" principle wherein increasing amounts of money were to be contributed by the beneficiary in the planning and building of a project. Newly authorized projects under this act would have more local burden, because they would now have to share the project's cost. This had the effect of scaling back or killing some water projects. The act also created the National Dam Safety Program. There have been many amendments to the Water Resources Development Act, which serve to authorize new water projects built primarily by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Some recent federal legislation is trying to lessen the impacts of past environmental damage from large water projects. For example, the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 authorized the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan to replenish the Everglades with some of the water it lost through previous Army Corps of Engineers development projects. Those projects had diverted water from Lake Okeechobee to Miami and other coastal cities, depriving the Everglades of its yearly flows.

SEE ALSO Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. ; Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. ; Clean Water Act ; Everglades ; Florida, Water Management in ; Hydroelectric Power ; Integrated Water Resources Management ; Legislation, Federal Water ; Legislation, State and Local Water ; Planning and Management, History of Water Resources ; Planning and Management, Water Resources ; Policy-Making Process ; Pollution Sources: Point and Nonpoint ; River Basin Planning ; Safe Drinking Water Act ; Transportation ; Wastewater Treatment and Management .

Laurel E. Phoenix


Rogers, Peter. America's Water: Federal Roles and Responsibilities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Thompson, Stephen A. Water Use, Management, and Planning in the United States. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1999.


The vastness of the United States, the differences in its regional climates, and the complexity of water resources in the face of everchanging demands make water management too complex to be left to one governmental agency. Hence, numerous agencies at the international, federal, state, and local levels must all play a part in water resources management. Moreover, every American citizen is responsible to care for the nation's finite resource. The daily actions of individuals can either enhance or hinder water conservation and quality protection; hence, the ultimate responsibility is a collective one.

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