Celebrating a Public Protections Milestone: The 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act

Oct. 18 marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a crucial law that protects the nation's water from pollution. Congress passed the landmark legislation at a time when much of our water was so contaminated by industrial waste and other pollutants that it was unfit for public use. By setting ambitious goals for the cleanup of contaminated waters, the Clean Water Act led to dramatic improvements in water quality and serious reductions in industrial pollution. As we celebrate the significant successes of the Clean Water Act, however, we must remain focused on responding to current and future threats to water quality.

The Call to Action

In 1972, heightened public concern about the devastating impacts of water pollution pushed Congress to amend the relatively weak Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 and adopt the Clean Water Act. (This followed several high-profile disasters like Ohio's Cuyahoga River catching on fire because of the contaminants in the water.) The Clean Water Act strengthened the statutory framework and required mandatory pollution controls and meaningful enforcement mechanisms.

The Clean Water Act set a new national goal "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters." It sought to ensure all waters be "fishable and swimmable" and provided the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and states with the authority to set and implement the standards necessary to achieve these goals. Generally, states set water quality targets and standards that define specific cleanup measures or limit the amount of pollution that can be discharged into bodies of water; EPA then reviews and approves these targets and standards. The Clean Water Act also established a number of different programs aimed at protecting wetlands, coastal waters, estuaries, and large ecosystems.

Successes of the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act led to significant reductions in industrial and sewage waste discharges. Overall, more than 60 percent of the nation's waters meet the Clean Water Act's fishable and swimmable goal; in 1972, only about a third were considered fit for these activities. The Clean Water Act brought major reductions in industrial pollution flowing into the once-flammable Cuyahoga River, and segments of the Hudson River are in far better shape than they were in the 1970s. In Lake Erie, a former dumping ground considered to be irreversibly damaged, conditions improved enough to support the return of crucial fish populations. The country's overall water quality has improved significantly over the past four decades, but many waters still fail to meet water quality standards.

Remaining Challenges to Clean Water

EPA's most recent national water quality inventory reported that 44 percent of assessed miles of rivers and streams, 30 percent of assessed square miles of bays and estuaries, and 64 percent of assessed lake and reservoir acres did not fully support safe fishing and safe swimming.

Further improvements to water quality have been hindered by a number of challenges unforeseen in 1972. The impacts of population growth, development, and increased runoff from poorly regulated sources of pollutants were not anticipated when the Clean Water Act was passed. As a result, some of the greatest threats to water quality today are not sufficiently addressed by the existing legal framework of the Clean Water Act and pollution management practices it contains.

Water pollution comes from "point" sources, such as direct discharges from industrial or wastewater treatment facilities, and "nonpoint" sources, such as diffuse runoff from urban areas or agriculture operations. Nonpoint source pollution is now the leading cause of water quality impairment, but the Clean Water Act does not regulate this category of pollution as stringently as it does point source pollution. While many water quality experts agree that statutory revisions are needed to adequately address nonpoint source pollution, passing meaningful reform will not be easy.

Insufficient resources also limit the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act. To keep pace with emerging challenges and retain previous gains in water quality, the EPA and state environmental quality agencies need up-to-date technology and data. Staff and resources are necessary to monitor water quality and enforce the requirements of the Clean Water Act. Continued budget cuts threaten to undermine the progress of the Clean Water Act and derail future improvements in water quality.

Building on the Progress on Water Quality

The Clean Water Act represented an unprecedented national effort to preserve the integrity of the nation's waters, and the amount of waters restored since 1972 serves as a reminder of what we can do if the public will is there. Efforts are underway to identify and implement new solutions, but they require resources and a vigilant public demanding action.

Now is the time to celebrate the progress our country has made on water quality, to reaffirm the commitment to clean water, and to continue to work to achieve the goals of the Clean Water Act. One way you can join in: Clean Water Network and a number of partner organizations are hosting a celebration event in Washington, DC, during the afternoon of Oct. 18. If you're going to be in the area that day, plan to attend the event! Visit Clean Water Network's event page for more information.

Image in teaser by flickr user matthewebel, used under a Creative Commons license.

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