Making Waves with the Clean Water Act

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Science  19 Dec 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5909, pp. 1788
DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5909.1788a

The letter of R. E. Dodge et al., “A call to action for coral reefs” (10 October, p. 189), lists actions needed to reverse the decline of coral reefs. Although a primary management tool in nearshore environments, marine protected areas (MPAs) are not designed to protect coral reefs from land-based activities or threats that originate outside MPA boundaries (1).

In contrast, the objective of the U.S. Clean Water Act (PL 92-500, Sec. 101, 33 U.S.C. 1251) is to “restore and maintain the … biological integrity of the Nation's waters” for all “territorial seas … measured from the line of ordinary low water … and extending seaward a distance of three miles” [Sec. 502, 33 U.S.C. 1362(8)]. Under the Clean Water Act, and with approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states and territories could define biological thresholds for reef condition as part of their water quality standards. Although thresholds have been defined for coral reefs (e.g., coral cover is greater than 10%), states and territories have yet to adopt them as biological criteria (2). Failure to meet defined criteria can trigger regulatory actions to support restoration.


So why has the Clean Water Act never been used specifically to protect coral reefs? Many scientists and managers still mistakenly associate the Clean Water Act with a narrow focus on end-of-pipe chemical contaminants (3), but the law actually calls for reduction of all human actions that degrade water resources. Recently, EPA and the states have embraced assessments of fish, invertebrates, and plants as measures of environmental condition (4).

Actions taken under the Clean Water Act have vastly improved freshwater and estuarine environments (5); similar actions can answer Dodge et al.'s call to conserve reefs and nearshore environments. Successful use of the Clean Water Act and biological criteria in U.S. jurisdictions could provide a template for countries with analogous legislation.


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