Clean Water Action Center - History

In 1972, Congress enacted the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act, or CWA) with the intention of restoring and maintaining "the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation's waters." Congress was concerned not only with the safety of drinking water supplies, but specific attention was paid to the health of wildlife habitats and waters important for recreation. The Act's ultimate goal was to make all waters fishable and swimmable.

For more than three decades, the CWA led to drastic improvements in water quality across the country. Rivers and streams became healthier, wetland loss declined and polluters cleaned up their act. Then, in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. United States Army Corps of Engineers (SWANCC) certain wetlands and other isolated waters could not be protected under the CWA based solely on migratory bird use. The Court again dealt a blow to CWA protections in 2006 when it ruled in Rapanos v. United States and Carabell v. United States Army Corps of Engineers (Rapanos) that wetlands required a "significant nexus" or connection to navigable waters to be covered under the CWA.

Following each of these cases, the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new regulatory guidance for use in implementing the CWA. The guidance further rolled back protection from waters considered "isolated." Millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of small streams were stripped of federal protection that had been in place for 30 years prior.

In 2007 Congress introduced the Clean Water Restoration Act, meant to restore CWA protections to those wetlands. They will reintroduce the bill this year as well. Ducks Unlimited has been active in supporting this process, and Director of Conservation Scott Yaich has testified before Congress on the importance of protecting these wetlands.

Clean Water by the Numbers

  • 98%: Percentage of waters of the United States not truly navigable as defined by the most recent CWA guidance
  • 2: The number of 500-year floods in the last 15 years in the Midwest. Loss of wetlands only makes these types of floods more common
  • 500: The approximate number of EPA enforcement cases since July 2006 negatively affected by the confusion surrounding the current CWA guidance
  • 50%-90%: The number of prairie potholes in some areas that have already been lost or severely degraded
  • 80,000: The number of acres of wetlands the United States continues to lose every year
  • 470: Tons, in millions, of soil lost in the most recent floods. Taxpayers will foot the bill to dredge soil and sediment from river systems


  • Wetlands and Ducks in the Balance
  • Baucus-Klobuchar Compromise for Clean Water
  • Crisis for America's Wetlands (PDF)
  • Myths and Facts about the Clean Water Restoration Act
  • Text of the Clean Water Restoration Act S. 787
  • Clean Water Resources Clean Water Act Supporters Clean Water Where You Live