First Water Pollution Control Act Is Passed

The Water Pollution Control Act extended the reach of the federal government by establishing cooperative arrangements with the states for grants, research, and technical assistance.

Summary of Event

On June 30, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the Water Pollution Control Act (WPCA; known after 1977 as the Clean Water Act). The act addressed the nation’s water-quality problems by attempting to establish a cooperative relationship between the federal and state governments. It resulted from decades of debate over the appropriate role of the national government in what was long considered a state concern. Amended several times by Congress, the 1948 legislation was the model for future federal clean-water statutes. Water Pollution Control Act (1948)
Clean Water Act (1948)
Environmental policy, U.S.;water
[kw]First Water Pollution Control Act Is Passed (June 30, 1948)
[kw]Water Pollution Control Act Is Passed, First (June 30, 1948)
[kw]Pollution Control Act Is Passed, First Water (June 30, 1948)
[kw]Act Is Passed, First Water Pollution Control (June 30, 1948)
Water Pollution Control Act (1948)
Clean Water Act (1948)
Environmental policy, U.S.;water
[g]North America;June 30, 1948: First Water Pollution Control Act Is Passed[02560]
[g]United States;June 30, 1948: First Water Pollution Control Act Is Passed[02560]
[c]Environmental issues;June 30, 1948: First Water Pollution Control Act Is Passed[02560]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 30, 1948: First Water Pollution Control Act Is Passed[02560]
[c]Government and politics;June 30, 1948: First Water Pollution Control Act Is Passed[02560]
Barkley, Alben William
Truman, Harry S.
[p]Truman, Harry S.;environmental policy
Wolman, Abel
Lonergan, Augustine
Reid, Kenneth A.
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;environmental policy
Taft, Robert A.

Prior to 1948, Congress had considered nearly one hundred measures dealing with water pollution but had passed only three. The Refuse Act (1886) Refuse Act (1886) prohibited dumping of refuse that obstructed navigation in New York Harbor. The Rivers and Harbors Act (1899) Rivers and Harbors Act (1899) broadened the refuse regulations to any navigable water in the United States. The Oil Pollution Act (1924) Oil Pollution Act (1924) prohibited discharging petroleum in coastal waters. Aside from these three regulations, the federal government offered research and technical assistance to the states through the Public Health Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Mines.

The management of pollution in the first half of the twentieth century was considered a state responsibility. Most states had created health departments to act on water-quality issues, especially as they related to waterborne diseases such as typhoid that produce high death rates. Local governments had made meaningful progress in supplying potable water supplies. Population growth and the expansion of manufacturing, however, inundated the nation’s waters with sewage and industrial wastes.

In the twentieth century, water-quality problems became so acute and difficult to manage that state governments put pressure on Congress to provide additional assistance. The problem was especially severe in rivers that flowed through several states. Congressional action resulted in increased research support that tended to illustrate the magnitude of the problem, increase public concern, and clarify the need for federal involvement.

Water Pollution in the United States
Water Pollution in the United States (government survey) (1934), the most meaningful survey during the period, was undertaken by the National Resources Committee in order to inform Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the status of the nation’s rivers and to offer recommendations. The committee, chaired by the renowned sanitary engineer Abel Wolman, compiled its report using the scientific and technical skills of some of the leading engineering and sanitation experts in the United States. Produced with the assistance of the U.S. Public Health Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and representatives from the states and industry, the report recognized stream pollution as a growing threat to the nation. It focused on dangers for the populated Northeast, where rivers were drinking-water sources as well as sinks for domestic and industrial wastes. The advisory committee’s recommendation recognized the role of the federal government as a cooperative party with the states, and made recommendations that would enlarge the national government’s role. Many of these recommendations are found in the 1948 legislation.

In 1935, Senator Augustine Lonergan of Connecticut, encouraged by conservation groups such as the Izaak Walton League of America, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and state governments, proposed federal water-pollution control legislation. After a series of debates and revisions, a bill was passed in 1939, only to be vetoed by President Roosevelt because of technical errors relating to grant allocations. In 1940, Congress considered a revised bill, but it died, and Congress then became distracted by the demands of World War II.

The Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, sponsored by senators Alben William Barkley of Kentucky and Robert A. Taft of Ohio, authorized federal grants to state and municipal governments and interstate agencies to help finance engineering studies and construction of water-treatment works. The act provided $1 million a year for the studies (limited to $20,000 or one-third of actual cost), $1 million a year for examination of industrial waste problems, and $22 million a year for treatment-plant construction loans (limited to $250,000 or one-third estimated cost), with total expenditures of $216 million over eight years.

The WPCA authorized the Public Health Service Public Health Service, U.S. to enhance its existing research functions and produce extensive programs with the states and interstate agencies to seek solutions to all aspects of water pollution, to support uniform water standards, and to promulgate interstate agreements. The Division of Water Pollution Control Division of Water Pollution Control, U.S. , created as a department of the Public Health Service, was designated to administer the legislation. It established ten field units in the United States, with a base of operations and main research facility, the Robert A. Taft Sanitary Engineering Center Robert A. Taft Sanitary Engineering Center , in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The act provided for federal enforcement, but only at state request. With the WPCA, Congress attempted to promote state and federal cooperation—a sharing of responsibility. The states maintained control but received technical and financial assistance.

Conflicts within Congress and the White House over funding, authority of the federal government, and reluctance by some states that feared federal domination and defended “states’ rights” restrained the full implementation of the WPCA. Because of budget and political constraints, the construction-loan program was never funded. Only about $11 million was appropriated, mostly devoted to Public Health Services projects. Thus, although the WPCA proved ineffective in providing meaningful solutions to the nation’s pollution problems, it opened the door for greater federal involvement in the decades ahead.

As a matter of public-policy philosophy, Congress justified the act by stating that the nation’s health and welfare depended on water-pollution control. Although the WPCA established in Congress some jurisdiction over pollution control in the nation’s waters, it reaffirmed the states’ primary responsibility and authority. With subsequent amendments, this authority would shift toward a national policy.


Water and the efforts to protect it have played an important role in America’s history. Colonists built settlements on banks of rivers and small streams. Waterways provided an essential component of life for humans, livestock, crops, and fisheries and supplied power for early industrial activities. Regulatory protection of water and fisheries dates back to the seventeenth century. Despite the recognition of the importance of the resource, initial water regulations could not control the damaging impacts of human settlements scattered across the landscape.

The expansion of industrial urban centers in the nineteenth century forced civic and business leaders to reconsider the value of water as a national resource. High death rates from waterborne epidemic diseases and the concern for the accumulation of debris in rivers provided a nexus for reform. State river and harbor commissions and boards of health used advancements in science and technology to improve water purity. The use of sand filtration systems and chlorine, for example, lowered mortality rates significantly.

Improvements in water quality required persistent pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of public policy. Disputes over scientific justification and the value to public welfare emerged in conflicts regarding the construction of municipal water systems and sewerage facilities. These disputes were often difficult to resolve.

Reduced mortality rates in nineteenth and early twentieth century American cities illustrated the value of such investments. Municipal systems, however, often routed urban wastes to downstream users, which simply shifted the burden elsewhere. In addition, management of domestic wastes did little to improve conditions compromised by industrial discharges. Industrialists considered pollution an unfortunate by-product of production processes and judged abatement costs a responsibility of the community reaping the economic benefits. Since manufacturers held substantial local political power, municipal leaders were encumbered in their attempts to mitigate the harmful effects of industrial water pollution. In addition, states had no power over waste discharges from adjacent states. Though many political leaders argued that water-quality control was a question of “states’ rights,” state governments yielded to a central authority to help solve an increasingly complex problem.

Water-pollution statutes followed a progression in the twentieth century from reliance on common-law solutions to state statutes and, finally, federal law. State water law, based on court decisions, had gone through a crucial transition in the nineteenth century. State courts adapted centuries of English law that held agriculture and domestic use of water as first priority in order to accommodate the expansion of urban industrialization. In many cases, domestic and industrial polluters argued that the right to dump refuse in common streams was a necessary aspect of the country’s economic development. State courts agreed.

In the twentieth century, this disposition, combined with the expansion of urban industrial centers, had created environmental problems of major consequence that could not be ignored. Groups and individuals concerned with the country’s quality of life began to push actively for government to address pollution. These groups included women’s organizations, conservation groups such as the Izaak Walton League of America, and certain businesses. Water pollution, in some areas, had forced industry to install costly treatment plants to avoid damage to machinery and products. Therefore, the demand for reform and expansion of water-pollution control legislation had a broad and complex base of support. State and federal legislation that followed, however, did not meet the expectations of those advocates.

Disputes over the meaning of water quality and public policy would exist throughout the twentieth century, as the meaning of pure water and its value as a natural resource for human existence and industry has been broadened to include concerns for aesthetics and recreation. Therefore, public policy has evolved in an attempt to balance the economic needs and quality of life.

The significance of the Water Pollution Control Act was in expanding the existing research and technical role of the federal government and, at the same time, establishing a rationale for future expansion and domination of water-quality issues. Though the act itself had little immediate impact, it constituted a shift in responsibility away from the states to the national government. Funding for water-treatment and sewage facilities became entwined with state acceptance of federally approved water standards, research techniques, and statutes.

Congress expanded the role of the U.S. Public Health Service to facilitate the gathering of information. As the research revealed the extent of harm done, and as the states realized that many of these problems were beyond their control, pressure mounted on Congress to broaden its responsibility. Thus federalism, centralization, and science transformed water-control legislation during an era when regulatory authority shifted from the states to the national government. The WPCA represents a crucial point in that shift.

The broadening of federal authority in 1948 also established a rationale for closer examination of another environmental problem—air pollution. Four months after the WPCA passage, Donora, Pennsylvania, experienced a heavy smog Temperature inversions;Donora, Pennsylvania that killed about twenty people and sickened 43 percent of the population. The Donora event prompted an investigation by the U.S. Public Health Service and led to the passage of the Air Pollution Control Act (1955), which was approximately modeled on the WPCA. Water Pollution Control Act (1948)
Clean Water Act (1948)
Environmental policy, U.S.;water

Further Reading

  • Davies, J. Clarence, and Barbara S. Davies. The Politics of Pollution. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975. Describes the legislative response to pollution problems primarily from the 1960’s to the early 1970’s. Earlier water-pollution legislation is discussed briefly. The book’s value is found in the discussion of the political process and influences that produced state, local, and federal regulations.
  • Dworsky, Leonard B. “Analysis of Federal Water Pollution Control Legislation, 1948-1966.” Journal of the American Water Works Association 59 (June, 1967): 651-668. The article details the various aspects of federal water laws, describing changes to and new plans for the basic law.
  • _______. Conservation in the United States: Documentary History—Pollution. Edgemont, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1971. A compilation of government documents and laws, summaries, and correspondence relating to water and air pollution. The section on water begins with the colonial era and ends in the 1970’s. Dworsky provides a brief historical prologue and introduction to various sections. An excellent source of information on the history of air and water pollution.
  • 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 effects, enforcement, application, and subsequent amendments. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Melosi, Martin V. Pollution and Reform in American Cities, 1870-1930. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980. An anthology of articles concerning air, garbage, noise, smoke, and water pollution. Contains chapters on politics and the contribution of women’s groups to sanitation reform. Especially good at detailing the extent of pollution in the cities and the efforts to resolve the problems. Well documented.
  • Murphy, Earl Finbar. Water Purity: A Study in Legal Control of Natural Resources. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961. A legal history of water-pollution control based primarily, but not exclusively, on experiences in Wisconsin. Murphy discusses the historical foundations of regulations and the tendency of local governments to centralize authority. One of the first legal histories or case studies of the subject after the Water Pollution Control Act became law.
  • Tarr, Joel A. “The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Air, Land, and Water Pollution in Historical Perspective.” Records of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. 51 (1984): 1-29. Examines the relationship between technology, policy, and human values in relation to urban pollution problems. The article provides historical analysis of waste-pollution problems, the various attempts at political and technological control, the disposition of people toward policies, and the consequences of pollution. The author suggests that solutions to one pollution problem often generate new ones. Good bibliography.
  • U.S. Congress. House, National Resource Committee. Water Pollution in the United States. Third Report of the Special Advisory Committee. House Document No. 155. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939. Examines the extent of the nation’s water-pollution problems and offers recommendations. Provides a good picture of the water-quality problems the nation encountered and the rationale for expanded federal authority.
  • U.S. Treasury Department. Stream Pollution: A Digest of Judicial Decisions and Compilation of Legislation Relating to the Subject. Public Health Service Bulletin No. 87. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1918. A compilation of court decisions and state and federal laws up to 1918. A good historical source on nineteenth century water-pollution lawsuits.

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Congress Strengthens Water Laws