They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: A Brief History of Environmental Water Monitoring

50 Years of Progress in Environmental Monitoring
Oral Presentation

Prepared by H. McCarty
General Dynamics Information Technology, 6361 Walker Lane, Suite 300, Alexandria, VA, 22310, United States

Contact Information: [email protected]; 703-254-0093


The USEPA was founded in 1970, but the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was already in existence in 1965. But environmental monitoring dates to the turn of the last century. USGS, formed in 1876, was responsible for early water monitoring efforts. The ASTM D-19 Committee was created in 1932 and Standard Methods was first published in 1906.

Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. Both require analytical methods for use in water monitoring and research. EPA’s initial response to these monitoring needs was to draw on existing methodologies. In the 1970s, industry was measuring in milligrams per liter. As environmental science progressed and as a result of litigation, there was a need for methods to monitor compliance with national industrial wastewater limits, and new methods were published in 1979, many of which could measure to the microgram per liter level.

As environmental work progressed, EPA worked with instrument manufacturers, standards vendors, and research and commercial laboratories to refine and validate these new methods. By the early 1980s, measurements of pollutants in the low part-per-billion range was commonplace. By the end of the 1980s, concerns over the presence of dioxin in pulp and paper discharges lead EPA to develop procedures that could measure down to part-per-quadrillion levels. Instrument manufacturers responded to this need with equipment that can provide stable, reliable performance at these measurement levels. Standard vendors have developed and provided high-purity reference standards for many regulated analytes, and also provided customized mixtures of reference standards and materials such as isotopically labeled compounds--the compounds needed to support such monitoring.

We would like to discuss some of the water environmental issues of the last 50 years and the subsequent analytical techniques that have been developed to deal with the problems.