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Legal Frameworks for Water Protection

State and federal laws play an important role in protecting and improving water quality and ensuring public access to our shared water resources.

 

Milwaukee River

THE FEDERAL CLEAN WATER ACT 

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed in 1972 to resolve growing concerns over water degradation in the United States. The Act effectively gives authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate all pollutant discharges to the waters of the United States. While a national regulatory scheme is in place, the Clean Water Act also allows the EPA to delegate its authority to individual states. Under the CWA, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has been entrusted with the administration and enforcement of Wisconsin’s water pollution permitting program. 

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THE FEDERAL SAFE DRINKING WATER ACT

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the EPA sets science-based standards for drinking water to protect public health. While the focus of the law is mainly on public drinking water systems, it also gives the EPA the power to intervene when state and local governments are unwilling or unable to address groundwater contamination that presents an imminent and substantial threat to public health.

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WISCONSIN’S GROUNDWATER LAW

Wisconsin’s groundwater Law (Ch. 160, Wis. Stats.) establishes the framework for minimizing the concentration of polluting substances in groundwater through the use of numerical standards. The law applies to all groundwater in the state and is used by all state agencies in their regulatory programs that may impact groundwater.

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THE PUBLIC TRUST DOCTRINE

The Public Trust Doctrine is a source of legal authority rooted in ancient Roman law and enshrined in the Wisconsin Constitution. It requires government to intervene to prevent the impairment of public waters and their uses. While these uses were once understood to include only access to public waters for navigation and commercial purposes, the public trust is now understood to encompass public rights to water quantity and quality, recreational uses and scenic beauty. Over the last century, state courts have consistently upheld and strengthened this constitutional responsibility to protect Wisconsin’s lakes, streams, and rivers.

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