An overview of the evolving jurisdictional scope of the U.S. Clean Water Act for hydrologists

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Riley Walsh, Adam Scott Ward 


The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the primary federal mechanism by which the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of streams, lakes, and wetlands are protected in the U.S. The CWA has evolved considerably since its initial passage in 1948, including explicit expansions and contractions of jurisdictional scope through a series of legislative actions, court decisions, and agency rules. Here, we provide a practical summary of the CWA’s evolution, detailing the major updates or revisions and their circumstances. Additionally, we identify the jurisdictional scope of the law for rivers and streams, lakes, and wetlands based on the language used and implementation by the agencies during the same time period. While the rulemaking process commonly uses language that will be abstract to many hydrologists, understanding the on-the-ground implications, quantifying regulatory (un)certainties, and assessing the magnitude of changes through time is important to understanding the implications of environmental regulation development, litigation, and enforcement. Thus, we translate the enforcement norms and definitions into quantitative estimates for Clean Water Act scope in the Wabash River Basin (IL, IN, & OH, USA) as a demonstration of the spatial consequences of changing regulatory language.



Earth Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Hydrology, Physical Sciences and Mathematics, Water Resource Management


Clean Water Act


Published: 2021-04-02 12:16

Last Updated: 2022-02-11 18:53

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CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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