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Clean Water Act turns 50: Its history and structure in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Jim Bloch. Lake Michigan is one of four Great Lakes monitored and protected by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy under the federal Clean Water Act.

By Jim Bloch

“Water defines us in the state of Michigan,” said Phil Argiroff, assistant director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s Water Resources Division.

Argiroff spoke in an Oct. 4 webinar sponsored by EGLE in celebration of a half-century of the Clean Water Act, one of the most transformative pieces of environmental protection legislation ever passed.

The CWA turned 50 on Oct. 18.

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Argiroff talked about the history and structure of the CWA and its impact on Michigan.

Impacts of clean water

Clean water is important for aquatic life and wildlife; as a source of drinking water; for swimming and fishing; and for source water for agriculture and industry.

“All these uses are protected by the CWA,” said Argiroff. “These are called our designated uses.”

EGLE’s Water Resource Division protects and monitors four Great Lakes — Huron, Michigan, Erie and Superior — and Lake St. Clair; 11,000 inland lakes;76,000 miles of streams and rivers; 6.5 million acres of wetlands; and 74,000 acres of coastal dunes for swimmability, fishability and drinkability.

EGLE issues permits for municipal and industrial discharges, pesticide applications; concentrated animal feed operations; stormwater discharges from municipal separate storm sewers; and industrial activities and construction.

It also issues permits for three areas not derived from the CWA: groundwater discharges; aquatic nuisance control and ballast water discharges.

Origins

The surface waters of the U.S. in the 1960s were a mess. Lake Erie had been classified technically as dead. Elsewhere in the Midwest, important rivers such as the Cuyahoga in Cleveland and the Rouge in Detroit caught fire. In Santa Barbara, a massive oil spilled fouled beaches and killed wildlife. The burgeoning environmental movement, ranging from old line organizations like Sierra Club to more radical, direct-action groups such as Greenpeace, founded in 1971, pushed for federal pollution controls. In Michigan, one of the most powerful environmental champions was the United Auto Workers. The first Earth Day was held in 1970 and contributed mightily to the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

It was not an entirely new act.

In fact, it amended the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act. But the amendments were significant enough to merit a new name and a new start date: The Clean Water Act of 1972.

What did the act do?

The Clean Water Act established a structure for regulating the discharge of pollutants into the country’s surface waters, according to Argiroff. It allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry. It required the EPA to set water quality standards for pollutants in all surface waters. It required industries and municipalities to get permits to discharge any pollutant from a point source — such as a sewer pipe — into surface water. The act funded the building of sewerage treatment plants to minimize pollutants going into the water. And it foresaw the need for planning to control non-point sources of pollution, such as stormwater runoff from farm fields and the impermeable surfaces in towns and cities.

“These were the significant factors of the 1972 amendments,” said Argiroff.

The act is structured in seven components, called titles: Title I, Research and related projects, including the goals of the act; Title II, Grants for the Construction of Treatment Works; Title III, Standards and Enforcement; Title IV, Permits and Licenses; Title V, General Provisions; and Title VI, the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund.

Goals of the CWA

The goals of the act were to eliminate pollutant discharges by 1985.

“Of course, we haven’t met this goal yet,” said Argiroff. “But it’s an important philosophical goal of the act.” Eliminating those discharges “are accomplished by EPA going through and regulating treatment technology requirements in the CWA and associated rules over time. What they do is look at certain categories of industries and they upgrade their requirements on a periodic basis to establish different requirements for, like, steam electric power plants or paper mills. It also required in the interim that water quality goals be achieved.”

Specifically, that the water is fishable, swimmable and drinkable.

The act’s goals included the prohibition of pollutants in toxic amounts.

“This is important for National Pollution Discharge Elimination System” — which issues permits for the discharge of wastewater — “as well as the Industrial Pretreatment Program for indirect discharges,” Argiroff said.

“Our compliance program feeds off the NPDES and all the other permits we issue,” said Argiroff.

Periodic inspections of the permitted uses are coupled with progressive enforcement.

“We try to resolve issues when we see them as simply as possible,” he said. If necessary, the attorney general may be asked to get involved.

The CWA provided grants to build public wastewater treatment plants, first under Title II, a grant program, and now under CWSRF, which is a loan program.

One of its goals was to look at wastewater treatment regionally or holistically. 

Another goal was to conduct major research to develop the technology to eliminate discharges overtime, and to implement non-source point controls.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 will provide Michigan with $900 million to loan to communities for infrastructure projects in fiscal year 2023 and $400 million in grants in FY 2023-24.

Jim Bloch is a freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. Contact him at bloch.jim@gmail.com.

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