October 18, 2012 Liz Borkowski, MPH 4Comment

Forty years ago today, the Clean Water Act was enacted. Since then, US waterways have gotten cleaner – but some people seem to be forgetting why we need regulation like this in the first place.  The Act aimed “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” by establishing a system to regulate municipal, industrial, and other discharges into waterways. EPA explains:

The CWA set a new national goal “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters”, with interim goals that all waters be fishable and swimmable where possible. The Act embodied a new federal-state partnership, where federal guidelines, objectives and limits were to be set under the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while states, territories and authorized tribes would largely administer and enforce the CWA programs, with significant federal technical and financial assistance. The Act also gave citizens a strong role to play in protecting and restoring waters.

The CWA specifies that all discharges into the nation’s waters are unlawful unless authorized by a permit and sets baseline, across-the-board technology-based controls for municipalities and industry. It requires all dischargers to meet additional, stricter pollutant controls where needed to meet water quality targets and requires federal approval of these standards. It also protects wetlands by requiring “dredge and fill” permits. The CWA authorizes federal financial assistance to states and municipalities to help achieve these national water goals. The Act has robust enforcement provisions and gives citizens a strong role to play in watershed protection. Congress has revised the Act, most notably in 1987, where it established a comprehensive program for controlling toxic pollutants and stormwater discharges, directed states to develop and implement voluntary nonpoint pollution management programs, and encouraged states to pursue groundwater protection. Notwithstanding these improvements, the 1972 statute, its regulatory provisions and the institutions that were created 40 years ago, still make up the bulk of the framework for protecting and restoring the nation’s rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands and coastal waters.

Among the Act’s achievements are cleaner drinking water and better water quality in lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. EPA reports that a study of lakes from the 1970s to 2007 found improved water quality, including reductions in sludge-forming nutrient concentrations in half of them. Between 1993 and 2008, the percentage of Americans receiving water that met health standards rose from 79% to 92%. Robert B. Semple Jr. at the NYT’s Taking Note blog has this assessment of the law’s successes and ongoing challenges:

Before Congress passed the bill, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio had repeatedly caught fire from oil slicks and other inflammables floating on its surface, 26 million fish died of contamination in a single Florida lake, raw sewage was dumped directly in great rivers like the Hudson and Mississippi, and two-thirds  of America’s waters were regarded as unfit for  fishing or swimming.

The law has done a fine job of stopping pollution from so-called “point sources”: direct discharges from industry and municipalities. Pollution from non-point sources – farm runoff, runoff from city streets and from destructive activities like mountaintop mining – have been more difficult to control.  And big cities like New York and the nation’s capital have yet to make the investments necessary to handle sewage overflows during big storms, when treatment plants are frequently overwhelmed.

Healthy water quality is something it’s hard to achieve without government regulation. As consumers, we could theoretically test and treat all our water at the household level, but I certainly appreciate being able to drink what comes out of the tap. This public benefit isn’t automatic; it requires regulations, enforcement, and monitoring. The system will inevitably displease those who’d like to be able to dump waste freely into rivers and lakes, but the 1972 Congress presumably determined clean water to be more valuable than the ability to pollute freely.  Today’s Congress, however, seems intent on reducing regulation, even when regulation provides enormous benefits. Semple reports:

Of the 300-plus anti-environmental votes in the House during the 112th Congress, as toted up by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, perhaps three dozen were aimed in one way or another at undermining clean water protections or rejecting efforts to strengthen them. The most recent manifestation  was the oddly-named “Stop the War on Coal Act,” a House-passed bill that  would effectively strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to step in when state water quality standards are not strong enough to protect public health, as well as its authority to do something about mountaintop mining.  The House has also cut funding for municipal water treatment plants and resisted efforts to strengthen protections for small streams and wetlands threatened by development.

The Clean Water Act’s 40th anniversary is an occasion for celebration, but it’s also a time to remind ourselves that environmental health improvements can’t be taken for granted.

4 thoughts on “The Clean Water Act at 40

  1. The Clean Air Act could have been a great “law” but it seems it’s just an “act” now. This harrowing. Nobody cares for the water we are drinking.
    Ed of Dredge.biz

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