Federal Water Pollution Control

The first Federal water pollution control legislation from the U.S. Congress was the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. Though the original intent of the Act was to keep waterways free of obstacles for navigation, it also prohibited the dumping of any solid waste into rivers and harbors.

The Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was the first Federal legislation to deal with water pollution directly. This Act and the later Acts of 1956 and 1961 were set up under the Department of the Interior (with some shared duties with other agencies) to deal with pollution on a case-by-case basis. Essentially, these early pollution control laws allowed pollution to be negotiated, mainly through the courts, as to what pollution control really was.

The 1965 Act amendments began to give each individual state the authority to develop and enforce water quality standards for interstate waters. If they didn't develop and enforce standards, the Federal government would step in and establish standards for them. The state level approach was slow, non-uniform, and states with lenient regulations would attract the heaviest polluters.

A few well-publicized industrial pollution spills during the late 1960's prompted congress to enact the 1972 WPCA amendments that created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This agency had administrative authority to enact regulations and enforce them as directed by congress. These Federal laws would create a level playing field for all states to abide by.

State of Wisconsin Regulations

Wisconsin's first pollution control laws would be administered under the State Board of Health. Early laws would not only concentrate on clean water and sewage treatment, but were written to protect the ice harvest as well.

The first water pollution control act in Wisconsin was the 1862 Slaughterhouse Official Act that banned the dumping of slaughterhouse waste in surface waters. Lumber mills would be next with passage of the 1880 Lumbering Act that prevented surface water disposal of sawdust, bark, and shavings. Commercial fishermen would be the last group targeted in the1800's when the 1895 Fish Official Dumping Act was passed.

Many more laws aimed at pollution control would be passed in the early 1900's. Each progressively gave more power and control to the State Board of Health. Then, to better deal with pollution issues, the State Committee on Water Pollution was set up under the Board of Health in 1927. Laws passed in the early 1900's dealt with everything from citizen's rights to outlawing the throwing of animal carcasses in surface waters.

The 1929 Wisconsin Blue Book (pg. 166-167) carried an interesting article on water pollution control measures at the time when creamery waste was studied at Ripon and De Forest. Also, as a result of cannery waste studies at Poynette, chemical precipitation was conducted at canneries in Poynette, Waupun, Fredonia Cedarburg, Ripon, Rosendale, Oconomowoc, Glenbeulah, and Jackson.

Funding in the early 1900's consisted of aid to municipalities and tax breaks to industries. After passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, the state appropriated $50,000, with the Federal government adding $16,000 in 1949 for pollution control efforts in the state. Additional tax breaks would be given under laws passed in 1953 to those industries that were mandated to treat pollution under state order. (Tax breaks were generally through accelerated deprecation rates and local property tax exemptions.)

In 1959 the State Board of health was given the authority to order a city, village, or town sanitary district to construct wastewater treatment facilities. Wisconsin was the first state passing a law banning non-degradable detergents in 1963. The 1965 Water Resources Act would create what would become the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) two years later (1967) and assume the duties of pollution control from the State Board of Health. After formation of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1972, the DNR would become the control authority for Federal laws.

It is interesting to note that in the 1970's, pollution contributors in Wisconsin were identified as:

  1. The paper industry. Concentrated along the Fox River, Paper mills were identified as the highest polluters in the state. One company discharged 21,5580,000 gallons of pulp and paper processing wastes into the Fox River each day.
  2. Municipal Sewerage. According to the 1993 Wisconsin Blue Book, in 1970 there were 475 municipal wastewater treatment plants in the state with 20% of them only offering primary treatment.
  3. Agricultural Runoff. Wisconsin's farmland ranks third as a contributor to water pollution.


In Wisconsin, as in most states, pollution control began at the state level. Early federal legislation didn't define what pollution control was, it told the States to create their own laws. If states did not properly mandate pollution control either the Federal government would step in, or relief could be sought through the courts. When the EPA was formed in 1972, they would administer pollution regulations that states had to follow. States that wanted control over their pollution could apply to become the control authority and administer the EPA regulations. As more regulations are passed on the Federal level, pollution control legislation shifted from the states to the Federal government with the intention of creating a level field for all States to follow.

PDF of Pollution Control Time Line


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