In my series on federal water agencies, so far I’ve written about the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS)and the Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). Although there are many other federal agencies that have water resources responsibilities, I’m concluding the series with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The mission of both the Corps and the USBR has traditionally been resource development. The water mission of the USGS is neither development nor protection but rather resource investigation and research. The water mission of EPA is resource protection.
Prior to the 20th century, there was little concern about the environment. The country was vast and the population while increasing was only a fraction of what it is today. Of course there were concerns about water pollution. Typhoid and cholera were known to be waterborne. University laboratories in the Eastern United States studied these problems and determined that chlorination of drinking water would eliminate their threats.
During the first few decades of the 20th century, however, small environmental movements began to spring up in different parts of the country.
The concern of many of these movements was water pollution from such diverse sources as mining waste, raw sewage, and agricultural chemicals among others. These movements coalesced in the early 1960’s with the publication of “The Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. This book was essentially an indictment of DDT as the culprit in water pollution and wildlife deaths. Within a short time, the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration came into existence and in a few years was renamed the Federal water Quality Administration (FWQA). Several other federal agencies were given responsibilities for other environmental contamination such as air pollution.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon proposed an organization that would consolidate the Federal environmental responsibilities including FWQA into one entity. The proposal was passed by the House and Senate, signed by the President, and EPA came into existence. Under the law creating it, EPA’s responsibility was to protect human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. While EPA is not a cabinet-level organization, its Administrator is normally afforded cabinet rank.
EPAs responsibilities for water are only a part of its overall responsibilities but the rest of this article will deal only with the responsibilities for water.
Within a relatively short time after EPAs creation, Congress passed and the President signed two water laws that became the responsibility of EPA to enforce. The Clean Water Act of 1972 is the primary federal law that governs water pollution. Among the provisions, it gave EPA the responsibility to create and enforce water quality standards for industry. It also gave EPA the responsibility to set water quality standards for surface waters in the U. S.
Two years later, Congress passed and the President signed the Safe Drinking Water Act whose intent was to ensure safe drinking water for all citizens. These laws together with subsequent amendments are the basis for EPA’s responsibilities for protecting the water resources of the U. S.
While EPA has done much to ensure clean water and safe drinking water, it remains controversial.
Ensuring clean water and safe drinking water can be expensive and EPA regulations have met resistance from resource development organizations, industry, municipalities and even from individuals who contend that their livelihoods are impacted by EPA regulations.
Nevertheless, I believe EPA, on balance, has managed to ensure that our streams, groundwater and drinking water are safer that they were prior to its creation.