Clean Water Act: Surface Water Protection

The Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act was first enacted in 1972. It serves as a framework to regulate the pollution of surface waters in the United States. It does not include the protection of groundwater (which is a protected under of the Drinking Water Protection Act). In its current form, the Act regulates the pollution of waterbodies through a system of water quality standards. It also establishes a system of pollution control permits and wastewater standards for municipalities and other industries.

Lake Tohopekaliga, Florida


If a waterbody protected under the Clean Water Act does not meet the set standards, a pollution cap is to be established as well as a plan for achieving this limit. The EPA delegated these responsibilities to the states. Each state must submit a list of its impaired waters to the EPA. The states must then set limits among various entities, otherwise known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). In Florida, the 3 most common TMDLs are fecal coliform, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), and metals (particularly mercury).

Waters of the United States

The Clean Water Act specifies that these regulations apply to “Waters of the United States.” In 2015, a rule defined these waters as: “the traditional navigable waters, all interstate waters, the territorial seas, impoundments of waters, tributaries, and adjacent waters.” Specifically, these protected waters include:

  1. Lakes, streams, and rivers that are currently used, were used in the past, or may be susceptible to be used in interstate or foreign commerce (i.e., navigable waters)
  2. Interstate waters (including wetlands) and territorial seas
  3. Tributaries of (1) and (2) above
  4. Impoundments of water
  5. Waters adjacent to (1)—(4) above
  6. Other waters that have a significant nexus to traditional navigable waters


The Navigable Waters Protection Rule of 2020

The 2015 rule was repealed in 2019 and a new rule took its place. As of 2020, protected waters fall into four categories:

  1. Territorial seas and traditional navigable waters
  2. Perennial and intermittent tributaries
  3. Lakes, ponds, and impoundments
  4. Wetlands that are adjacent to jurisdictional waters


The 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule also details what waters are not included, such as:

  • Features that only contain water in direct response to rainfall
  • Groundwater
  • Many ditches, including most farm and roadside ditches
  • Prior converted cropland
  • Farm and stock watering ponds
  • Waste treatment systems


For more information about the Clean Water Act visit:

For more information about the Navigable Waters Protection Rule visit:




Posted: March 18, 2020

Category: Water
Tags: Clean Water Act, Pollution, Surface Water

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