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Because water is so important to everyone, governments generally put in place protections to ensure the health and safety of the resource. In the United States, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 helped establish a paradigm for addressing water pollution in U.S. waters. As time went on, these provisions were expanded to reflect the changing environmental landscape.

Three separate but important water events—an oil spill, a burning river, and a trip to the moon—spurred the modern environmental movement and its attentiveness to protecting water. In January and February 1969, a massive spill from offshore oil production in the Santa Barbara Channel released over 80,000 barrels (12.7 million liters) of crude oil that lined the nearby beaches of Southern California and killed thousands of birds.1County of Santa Barbara Energy Division, “Blowout at Union Oil’s Platform A,” (accessed February 25, 2017) Later that year, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught on fire due to rampant pollution.2“America’s Sewage System and the Price of Optimism,” Time Magazine, August 1, 1969,,9171,901182,00.html (accessed February 25, 2017) Almost exactly one month later, the first mission to the moon successfully landed. Photographs taken from space revealed Earth to be more visibly blue than previously expected.

Significant amendments to the Water Pollution Control Act became the Clean Water Act in 1972. This new set of laws granted new regulatory authority to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) including wastewater treatment, sewage treatment, and discharges to waterways. The majority of these provisions have direct impact on surface water resources, but also apply to groundwater resources. While not commissioned to protect drinking water, protecting American waters from pollution is the first step to safe drinking water.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974 and later amendments expand water protection in the United States. The regulations required the EPA to develop drinking water standards and bound all public water systems in the country to the new standards. These regulations do not apply to private water supplies and private wells.

Images: “River” by Kenneth Sponselor via Shutterstock