By: Chad Edwards

The 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) was intended to protect the nation’s waterways from pollution by making lakes, rivers, and streams safe for swimming, fishing, and a host of other activities. Without enforcement, however, this law alone packs little punch in protecting the environment. The federal government relies on state agencies to enforce any of the critical provisions of the CWA, including the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), a system by which polluters are issued permits to emit specific quantities of pollution into waterways. The courts have enforced this system even when the agency does not fulfill its duties. In Homestake Mining Co. v. E.P.A., the court determined that a government agency’s permitting process will still be valid even if the agency has not strictly complied with every facet of the governing statute, so long as the agency has substantially complied with the statute. Since 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has modified one of its three national initiatives emphasizing compliance with the Clean Water Act. The revised initiative aims to reduce significant noncompliance with NPDES permits by half by the end of the fiscal year 2022. Such permits set limits on wastewater discharges from point sources, such as a pipe from an industrial facility. This goal supports EPA’s strategic objective to increase compliance with environmental laws in its strategic plan for fiscal years 2018- 2022. 

Manatees are herbivores, feeding solely on seagrass, algae, and other vegetation in freshwater and estuarine systems in the southeastern United States. During the summer months, Florida manatees can be found as far west as Texas and as far north as Massachusetts. Still, manatees congregate in Florida during the winter, as they require warm-water habitats to survive. Historically, manatees in Florida relied on the state’s abundance of natural artesian springs, the largest concentration in the world, to stay warm during cold weather. Unfortunately, many springs have been altered, degraded, and even lost entirely due to groundwater pumping for urban and agricultural development, being drowned under reservoirs, or being blocked by dams. The manatees continue to be threatened by loss of warm-water habitat and periodic die-offs from red tides and unusually cold weather events. Most deaths are recorded on Florida’s east coast, in the northern Indian River Lagoon, where manatees cluster in the colder months to find food and stay warm in the heat generated by a nearby power plant. But the lagoon’s seagrass, the vegetarian mammal’s primary food source, has been depleted over the years due to algal blooms caused by pollution from leaky septic tanks, sewer systems, and fertilizer runoff. It is the mismanagement of the wastewater that is discharged into the lagoon causing the problem. The ecosystem has been devastated, forcing the state’s iconic mammal into starvation. This issue has now come to the point where wildlife officials announced they would begin to feed Florida manatees greens like romaine lettuce to keep them from starving.

Recently several environmental groups announced their intent to sue the EPA over the manatee deaths, saying the agency failed to protect the mammals from water pollution. The groups pointed to pollution from wastewater, leaking septic systems, and fertilizer runoff for the algal outbreaks and seagrass loss. “It’s time for EPA to step in and enforce the Clean Water Act for the sake of the manatees and all the other creatures and people that rely on Florida’s waterways,” Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth said in a press release. 

On December 17, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the State of Florida is the first state in more than 25 years to apply for and receive approval to implement a Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 404 program, joining Michigan and New Jersey as the only states in the country with such authority. This action allows the State to more effectively and efficiently evaluate and issue permits under the CWA to support the health of Florida’s waters, residents, and economy. Florida’s submission met the standards established under Section 404 of the CWA and implementing regulations. It will ensure the protection of Florida’s aquatic resources equal to or better than the existing federal permitting program. Section 404 of the CWA requires a permit before dredged or fill material may be discharged into the waters of the United States. Section 404(g) of the CWA gives states and tribes the option of assuming, or taking over, the permitting responsibility and administration of the Section 404 permit program for certain waters. This is a step in the right direction for protecting the manatee. 


Click to access Enforcement_WP_Oct_2004.pdf

Click to access gao-21-290.pdf

My name is Chad Edwards and I am a Colville Tribal member I am 24 years old. I graduated from Eastern Washington University where I majored in Philosophy and minored in Native American Studies. I am now a J.D. Candidate, Class of 2023 Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Arizona State University. I have an interest in environmental law.