The Clean Water Act: 40 Years Later

by Alexandra Cousteau (originally posted on National Geographic's blog, Water Currents, on August 2, 2012)

I have two birthdays on my calendar circled with a big red marker this year. One is for my daughter, who just turned one, and the other is October 18th. That’s the day one of my closest friends turns 40. And while getting over the hill is a bittersweet bon anniversaire for most, this one is special. Because this is the day when The Clean Water Act marks its 40th anniversary.

Celebrating the Clean Water Act (CWA) is a priority for me this year. Amidst a tumultuous political landscape, it is more important than ever that we recognize the significance of this landmark piece of legislation and raise awareness for the work that still needs to be done. In my lifetime, I have witnessed the transformative effect the CWA has had on our nation’s water, and I do not want our hard fought gains to be reversed in a moment of shortsightedness.

For the last 40 years, communities across the United States have used the Clean Water Act to take back their watersheds, and restore the treasured places that were once considered beyond repair. Looking out on the global community, it is clear the CWA’s impact is not limited to this country—the Clean Water Act is widely viewed as the standard for water regulation around the world.

Yet, since being signed 40 years ago, the CWA has had its fair share of detractors. During the last decade in particular, numerous attempts have been made to undermine its provisions, including challenging whether the Act protects “non-navigable” waterways, and creating exceptions for “fill material” left over from mining and energy operations. More recently, the House has introduced several bills to shift regulatory functions, such as the ability to set water quality standards, to the States and out of federal control.

Looking forward, we need to return to the roots of this pivotal legislation and keep in mind the intentions of those who crafted it. What is apparently clear is that, at its core, the Clean Water Act was designed to safeguard all of our water—not just the water we can float a boat down. Because the framers of this landmark piece of legislation knew that water moves in cycles within larger systems, and that pollution discharged upstream—even in an ankle deep tributary—is going to have an impact on the rest of the watershed.

The same can be said of wetlands. Although they may not share a surface connection, wetlands are intricately tied to surrounding bodies of water. Wetlands serve important ecological functions, such as providing habitat and protected spaces for wildlife, and also act as natural filters that prevent the buildup of toxic substances and clean-up our water for consumption. Moving ahead, it is important that we increasingly recognize the value of a healthy environment and strive to practice better ecosystem-based management.

As we tackle the complex water issues of today and try to anticipate the challenges of tomorrow, it is critical to think about watersheds in their entirety—as systems—to maintain the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the whole. The Clean Water Act embodies watershed-first thinking, a whole-system approach that takes a balanced look at the numerous demands, threats, and developments within a watershed and works to develop solutions that bring all the shareholders to the table. It is when we forget about how systems function as a whole that we risk degrading the quantity and quality of water upon which we depend.

As we reflect on the special water places in our lives, let us give a thought to the role the CWA has played in protecting those areas. As a start, I have gone ahead and marked the birthday for the Clean Water Act in my calendar for the next few years. Because every time this Act becomes one year older, I know my daughter is also celebrating her birthday in a safer, healthier world.

Learn more about the Clean Water Act at the EPA and American Rivers websites.

Alexandra Cousteau is President of the DC-based non-profit Blue Legacy and a Senior Advisor for Oceana. She was also named a 2009 National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Her global initiatives seek to inspire and empower individuals to protect their watersheds.

Image © Blue Legacy/Oscar Durand, reprinted by permission

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