The federal government's role in water issues broadly has been significant with its roots based in the Constitution. Until relatively recently that role was focused on water resource issues and associated funding issues. However, in recent decades the federal role has expanded significantly directly into the health and environmental, and less directly into infrastructure and infrastructure financing issues.
Federal commerce authority includes navigation and Congress has jurisdiction over all navigable waters of the United States. Over time, legislation has been passed to define and expand the federal role in water resources development.
The basic water resources legislation, which governs the conduct of the Corps of Engineers' Civil Works Program, consists of numerous separate enactments of the Congress. The work of preparing and considering much of this legislation is done largely in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The tendency has been for Congress to gradually increase federal responsibility in response to needs of the times. The Corps of Engineers, the primary federal agency with water resources responsibility, began its civil works efforts with an Act of Congress in 1824 for the improvement of rivers and harbors for navigation. Legislative expansion of the Corps of Engineers' responsibilities has included flood control in 1917, water supply in 1944 and environmental concerns and emphasis in the 1970s. More recently, Congress has expanded the Corps of Engineers' role to environmental infrastructure, groundwater protection and wastewater treatment.
In terms of the federal interest in flood control, in the 1936 Flood Control Act, Congress established as a national policy that flood control on navigable waters is in the interest of the general public welfare and therefore a proper activity of the federal government in cooperation with the states and local entities. This act has been built upon over time to identify cost-sharing and non-structural measures for flood control projects.
Today, flood management continues to be a basic mission of the Corps of Engineers and is one of its most active and evolving arenas. In fact, it is forming the basis for the Corps’ multiple-purpose projects which are evolving to address community needs. What has gained more strength and focus under the Corps of Engineers and other federal water resources agencies programs is the restoration and protection of the environment. While we find that over 53% of the loss of wetlands in the contiguous U.S. has been due to human actions, 35% of all federally listed rare and endangered animal species either live in or depend upon wetlands. Congress has recognized this disparity and has taken steps to encourage the Corps of Engineers to develop wetlands and to restore habitat as a priority mission within the basic authorities of the Corps of Engineers' Programs.
Health, Environment, and Infrastructure
Pre-1972 there were few national enforceable requirements for drinking water, though many states had drinking water regulations. Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 1972, largely due to the then-recent discovery of organic contamination in public drinking water, and the lack of enforceable national standards to contend with them. The SDWA was amended in 1986 and again in 1996. The ’96 amendments especially emphasized sound science and risk based standards setting. It also introduced for the first time the multi-billion-dollar Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, to bring assistance in the form of low-interest loans to utilities building and/or improving their infrastructure.
Congress first addressed water pollution issues in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899.\ Portions of this law remain in effect, including the Refuse Act, while others have been superseded by various amendments. Congress pre-1972 was mostly interested in inter-state water pollution issues. However, in 1972 Congress passed far reaching legislation, the Clean Water Act (CWA), which is to this day the major federal legislation governing wastewater in the US. Further, to assist municipalities in creating or expanding sewage treatment plants, Title II of the CWA established a system of construction grants. This was replaced by the Clean Water State Revolving Fund in the 1987.
Both the SDWA and CWA are administered by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and overseen in Congress by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and in the House by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (for CWA), and the House Energy and Commerce Committee (for SDWA).
These are by no means the only Federal agencies involved with national water policy or that provide Federal funding for water related projects. In fact, a number of agencies in the Federal government are intricately involved in determining the nation’s water priorities, these include: United States Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Rural Utilities Service. A number of additional agencies also provide avenues that enrich the nation’s freshwater resources to include the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey.