Congress Strengthens Water Laws

The Water Quality Act was one in a series of amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 (also called the Clean Water Act). It strengthened federal antipollution regulations and transferred water-quality management control from noncompliant states to the federal government.

Summary of Event

The Federal Water Quality Act of 1965 marked an important step in ongoing governmental efforts to improve water quality in the United States. Yet although the act was a landmark, it was only one in a series of legislative attempts to control domestic water pollution. All water-pollution control measures in the United States are legislated by Congress, which bases its authority in such matters on the federal government’s jurisdiction over commerce on the country’s navigable waters. The first act of federal legislation was the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act Rivers and Harbors Act (1899) , which was administered by the secretary of the army and aimed at the prevention of obstacles to navigation; the most notable aspect of that act was the prohibition of discharge into those waters of all refuse except that found in liquid sewage. The first federal effort to address the health-related aspects of water pollution was the Public Health Service Act Public Health Service Act (1912) of 1912, which mandated the investigation of the relationship between water pollution and disease. The Oil Pollution Act Oil Pollution Act (1924) of 1924—also administered by the secretary of the army—regulated the discharge of petroleum into U.S. waters. Water Quality Act (1965)
Clean Water Act (1948)
Water Pollution Control Act (1948)
Environmental policy, U.S.;water
[kw]Congress Strengthens Water Laws (Oct. 2, 1965)
[kw]Water Laws, Congress Strengthens (Oct. 2, 1965)
[kw]Laws, Congress Strengthens Water (Oct. 2, 1965)
Water Quality Act (1965)
Clean Water Act (1948)
Water Pollution Control Act (1948)
Environmental policy, U.S.;water
[g]North America;Oct. 2, 1965: Congress Strengthens Water Laws[08580]
[g]United States;Oct. 2, 1965: Congress Strengthens Water Laws[08580]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 2, 1965: Congress Strengthens Water Laws[08580]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct. 2, 1965: Congress Strengthens Water Laws[08580]
Blatnik, John A.
Celebrezze, Anthony J.
Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;environmental policy

These acts exemplified the early federal actions to regulate water quality and to promote research into problems associated with water pollution. Over the years, the federal role in dealing with water pollution gradually became associated with strong regulatory action and increased powers of enforcement, beginning with the five-year Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 (known after 1977 as the Clean Water Act); after that act’s revision, it was extended until 1956.

In 1956, Congress passed the Water Pollution Control Act Water Pollution Control Act (1956) of 1956, responsibility for the enforcement of which was vested in the surgeon general of the Public Health Service. This more powerful act was amended in 1961 to extend federal authority to the intrastate pollution of navigable or intrastate waters. It also strengthened federal enforcement programs and passed administrative power to the secretary of health, education, and welfare (HEW).

The 1961 amendment made more federal assistance available to municipalities that wished to construct waste-treatment works—the funds for the period 1962 to 1967 totaled almost $600 million—and the ceiling for individual grants was more than doubled. The antipollution avenues open to municipalities were further broadened by the authorization of $25 million per year for research on pollution control and for the establishment of new research facilities throughout the nation, and state and interstate water-pollution programs were strengthened. The 1961 amendment reaffirmed the primary responsibilities and rights of the states in the prevention, control, and abatement of water pollution and designated that all related federal activities be carried out in cooperation with state and interstate agencies as well as with local representatives. Federal enforcement was mandated in cases where voluntary action to combat pollution did not occur.

The overall levels and incidence of water pollution between 1956 and 1965 showed, however, that further legislative amendments to the act were needed. In part, this was the result of the explosions of population increases and technological advancements of the period. More significant, however, was the fact that many municipalities and industrial corporations did not cooperate with federal pollution-control efforts. Furthermore, state and federal enforcement was in the hands of the Public Health Service, Public Health Service, U.S. which before 1961 initiated action on only seven of 125 interstate rivers that were reported to be polluted. Subsequent actions of Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Anthony J. Celebrezze, who ordered federal action on twenty-one additional rivers between 1961 and 1965, were somewhat more effective. Nevertheless, additional improvements were still clearly necessary.

All these factors led to the passage of the Water Quality Act of 1965, which was intended to improve the quality of the country’s water resources and to establish a national policy for prevention, control, and abatement of water pollution. The law empowered the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration Federal Water Pollution Control Administration (FWPCA) to fund endeavors that included research and development projects, construction of sewage-treatment works, and establishment of water-quality criteria.

A new recipe for grants and contracts included authorization of $80 million annually over four years to be used for developing better ways to control waste discharge from storm and sanitary sewers—an important consideration, particularly for older cities, where sewer discharge was a problem of considerable magnitude. In addition, allowed costs were increased for sewage-treatment projects, and funding provisions were altered to provide more realistic aid to densely populated areas and to encourage individual states to participate in the financing.

The law also addressed the development of water-quality standards in interstate waters, although the secretary of health, education, and welfare was still obligated to act only when state actions were unsatisfactory; in that eventuality, the FWPCA and a new HEW assistant secretary were responsible for taking action. There were two stages for the establishment of guidelines for the adoption and promulgation of the new water-quality standards. First, state governors or state water-pollution control agencies—within appropriate time limitations and after public hearings—were to adopt water-quality criteria and draft plans for their implementation and enforcement. Thereupon, the federal apparatus would determine that the planned action was consistent with the purposes of the Clean Water Act. If a state did not take appropriate action, the secretary of the interior was to meet with representatives from federal, state, and private sectors and draft standards that would apply, unless the state in question developed its own water-quality standards. Federal decisions were to be enforced by the U.S. attorney general, who was given the power to pursue noncompliance in the courts.


The two main polluters of the water supply in the United States are industry and municipalities, via plant effluents and incompletely treated sewage, respectively. The development and passage of the Water Quality Act had a huge and immediate impact on both. For example, industrial plants, which produce effluent, became much more compliant with the FWPCA cleanup requirements, in large part because the American public had become more aware of the pollution issue and of who the polluters were. Corporate executives began to realize that favorable public opinion was an important factor in their companies’ survival. Moreover, it was clear that the federal government now had much greater powers to enforce antipollution requirements and that resistance to cleanup efforts could put corporations at risk of severe fines. In addition, because the FWPCA was considering the granting of tax incentives to companies that installed antipollution equipment, compliance began to be seen as a potential economic advantage.

At the time the act was passed, it was known that, unless checked, industrial pollution could by 1970 equal in amount all the sewage ever produced by the entire population of the United States. If that were to occur, the needed amounts of industrial-quality water, without which no company could function, would become unavailable. This argument became another driving force toward compliance with the federal legislation. Fortunately, in 1965, existing cleanup techniques and new processes then being developed were able to handle all cleanup requirements at a reasonable cost, estimated as between 0.5 and 3.5 percent of the cost of building and running an industrial plant.

An increase in the purchase of antipollution equipment was a happy consequence of the Water Quality Act for the manufacturers of such equipment. Such manufacturers reported revenue increases ranging between 30 percent and 100 percent.

The municipal situation was somewhat different. In many instances, worn out or inappropriate sewage-treatment plants had been putting surrounding rivers and lakes at serious pollution risk. The problems were widespread, occurring in most states, and included the dumping of huge amounts of sewage from plants with treatment capacities that had been surpassed by urban population growth. Moreover, the additives used to “clean up” sewage often became pollutants themselves, and the Public Health Service questioned whether viruses and other potentially dangerous microbes were being released by some treatment facilities.

The Water Quality Act was a landmark antipollution law that provided funds for research and development, the building of newer and better sewage plants, and the modernization and enlargement of existing facilities. Nevertheless, all the participants in the antipollution struggle, from federal officials to civic antipollution groups, recognized that it would be a difficult, expensive, and ever-evolving task to keep antipollution efforts ahead of the continually increasing and changing pollutants produced by an expanding population, a burgeoning economy, and an evolving industrial technology. Water Quality Act (1965)
Clean Water Act (1948)
Water Pollution Control Act (1948)
Environmental policy, U.S.;water

Further Reading

  • American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. The Water Pollution Control Bill. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1966. This thirty-five-page report explores the Federal Water Pollution and Clean Rivers Act of 1966. Especially relevant is information on earlier acts, their content, results, and weakness.
  • “Billions to Clean up the Rivers.” Businessweek, April 24, 1965, 50-58. This article appeared after the Senate passed the Water Quality Act but before its passage by the House of Representatives. Includes a list of U.S. rivers in need of cleanup and discusses water-quality standards and their ramifications.
  • Gross, Joel, and Lynn Dodge. Clean Water Act. Chicago: Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources, American Bar Association, 2005. An executive summary and legislative and judicial history of the Clean Water Act, including its 1965 amendment by the Water Quality Act. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Lapedes, Daniel N., et al., eds. McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. Sections of this encyclopedic work are useful to informed consideration of the Water Quality Act. Discusses water pollution and its definition, water-supply engineering, rivers, sewers, sewage, and water treatment.
  • Miller, G. Tyler, Jr., and David G. Lygre. Chemistry: A Contemporary Approach. 3d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1991. Textbook that covers many useful aspects of chemistry, including aspects of water pollution and water cleanup. Contains valuable illustrations.
  • “Pollution Fight Picks Up Force.” Businessweek, November 13, 1965, 109-112, 117. Gives a brief, solid overview of the reception of the 1965 Water Quality Act. Discusses a potential effluent tax to fund antipollution efforts, public awareness of the problem, and existing possibilities for fighting water pollution.
  • Stein, Murray. “Legislation on Water Pollution Control.” Public Health Reports 79 (August 8, 1964): 699-706. Overview of the history of water-pollution legislation up to 1961 and of plans associated with the proposed 1965 act. Reflects contemporary ideas about state water-pollution control, pollution definition, enforcement measures, and state aid.

Fluoride Is Introduced into the U.S. Water Supply

First Water Pollution Control Act Is Passed

Congress Amends the Water Pollution Control Act

Congress Passes the Water Resources Research Act