The Clean Water Act is the primary federal law in the United States that governs water pollution. Commonly abbreviated as the CWA, the act established the symbolic goals of eliminating high amounts of toxic substances from being released into the water, eliminating additional water pollution by 1985, and ensuring that surface waters would meet standards necessary for human sports and recreation by 1983.

The principal body of law currently in effect is based on the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, which significantly expanded and strengthened earlier legislation. Major amendments were enacted to the Clean Water Act of 1977 and to the Water Quality Act of 1987.

Under section 309 of the CWA, the EPA can issue administrative orders against violators, and seek civil or criminal penalties when necessary.

  • For a first offense of criminal negligence, the minimum fine is $2,500, with a maximum fine of $25,000 per day of violation. A violator may also receive up to a year in jail. For a second offense, a maximum fine of $50,000 per day may be issued.
  • For a knowing endangerment violation, i.e. placing another person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, a fine may be issued up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 15 years for an individual. For an organization, there may be a fine of up to $1,000,000.
  • States that are authorized by EPA to administer the NPDES program must have the authority to enforce permit requirements under their respective state laws.