On January 6, 1965, Senator Edmund S. Muskie (D-ME) introduced S. 4, an administration-backed bill, and in this press release on the same day, declared that the purpose of the bill “is to encourage prevention of pollution as well as to attack the problem and to find more efficient ways of doing it.” Muskie, chair of the Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution of the Senate Committee on Public Works, enlisted bipartisan support and 25 co-sponsors. Since the Senate had passed a similar bill by a wide margin the previous year, the Public Works Committee promptly reported Muskie’s bill on January 27, and the Senate passed S. 4 by a vote of 68 to 8 the following day.
In his State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for an expanded conservation program as part of his vision of the Great Society, and on February 8, 1965, he delivered this Natural Beauty Message declaring that “Every major river system is now polluted.” Johnson called for the federal government to set “effective water quality standards, combined with a swift and effective enforcement procedure…” The Senate had already passed S. 4 requiring states to set water quality standards and empowering the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to impose federal standards if a state’s water quality standard was not adequate. The president’s remarks were clearly aimed at the House of Representatives which had not acted on S. 4.
S. 4 was referred to the House Committee on Public Works, which reported an amended bill on March 31, 1965. The most important amendment dropped the Senate provision authorizing the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to set water quality standards if the states failed to do so. Instead, the committee amended the bill and merely required each state to file notice of intention to set water quality “criteria.” This crucial change is evident in the first and last pages of the engrossing copy of the bill. The title of the Senate-approved bill authorized federal “standards of water quality” while the title of the House-amended bill provided for “water quality criteria.” On April 28, the House passed the House Public Works Committee’s version of S. 4.
On May 3, 1965, Senator Howard W. Cannon (D-NV) wrote Muskie about the serious threat to the Las Vegas Valley water supply if the House version of S. 4 became law and hoped “that you and other Senate conferees will insist that the Senate position on this issue prevails.” On September 17, nearly five months after House passage of the bill, the conference report was issued. It provided for federal enforcement of water quality standards, but with the federal action subject to review by a joint federal-state conference board. On September 21, the House and Senate agreed to the conference report, and on October 2, President Johnson signed S. 4 into law.