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History of the Clean Water Act

Urban runoff is also called "non point source pollution" by water quality specialists. Non point means the pollution did not come from a specific place, like an industrial plant or a factory. Waterways throughout the U.S. became polluted due to discharge of industrial waste products into water ways. At the time waterways like rivers and streams seemed infinite and the philosophy of “the solution to pollution is dilution” was followed. The result was “dead” waterways. The intricate balance of water ecology was thrown out of balance by the introduction of chemical pollutants. Lakes that were once thriving fishing spots were no longer providing fish. Rivers near chemical plants and steel mills caught on fire from the amount of solvents and other flammable checmicals. By the late 1960s, the situation for water quality in the U.S. had become serious.

In 1972, congress and President Nixon approved new legislation requiring the clean up of the nations polluted waterways called the Clean Water Act. It made the piping of industrial waste products to waterways illegal. Ten years later, after industrial discharge subsided, rivers and lakes began to fill with life again. Fish once again thrived and rivers catching on fire became something from the past.

But pollution levels began rising in waterways again. Due to rapid urbanization and sub-urbanization, pollutants once again began finding their way into the nations waterways. It was discovered that the source of the pollutants was not single pipes laden with industrial chemicals. The new source was found to be small amounts of pollutants from diffuse sources pesticide application, fluid leaks from automobiles, improper disposal of residential and small business waste products, soil erosion from construction. Each amount was small but multiplied by thousands of sites, the effect was large.

In 1987 the Clean Water Act was reauthorized with new provisions to address this new source of pollution, urbanization. The new provision required municipalities to reduce the pollution of its inhabitants by providing information, proper disposal opportunities and enforcing pollution laws. This new provision was called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The responsibility was now in the hands of municipalities to reduce the pollution to waterways. Each municipality is provided a permit, for a fee, and in return for obtaining the permit to discharge rainwater to waters of the US or the state, municipalities must require businesses and residents and builders to comply with certain practices and requirements. These are outlined in Alameda County’s current NPDES permit (PDF - 212kb)*.

* Portable Document Format (PDF) file requires the free Adobe Reader.

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