Clean Water Act at 50 – Much to be proud of and much yet to do

scenic river sunset

I was twelve when the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.  At that time, I lived in 1972 along the South River in Waynesboro, VA, in the Shenandoah River watershed.  We enjoyed that river – tubing, wading, skipping stones, and feeding the ducks, but you couldn’t eat the fish because of the mercury contamination from the DuPont plant.  My parents’ view was that there was no point in fishing for fish you can’t eat, so I never learned to fish.

By 1987, when the Clean Water Act was reauthorized, I was a brand new environmental attorney at the Department of Justice and was assigned to work on implementation of the new and improved Clean Water Act that Congress had just passed, so I have been working on that for 35 years now.  

So what have I seen over those years?  Tremendous progress – there is no doubt that the revival of rivers, lakes, and coastal waters like the Potomac River and across the U.S. has been driven by the many successful programs of the Clean Water Act:

  • The construction grants program that built or upgraded sewage treatment plants across the country
  • The permitting program for discrete sources of pollution, like industrial dischargers and sewage treatment plants
  • The effluent guidelines program that required the use of best available pollution treatment technologies even if the stream into which the discharge was flowing was not yet polluted

Other programs have been somewhat less successful in my view:

  • The permitting program to prevent wetlands destruction that has been unable to prevent the loss of 90% or more of the wetlands acreage in much of the country
  • The stormwater permitting program (which has had to fight population growth of more than 120 million over the past 50 years and the attendant spread of pavement across the landscape)
  • The program to control pollution from large animal feedlots, which in our own watershed, has not even been interpreted to require discharge permits for the almost 200 million animals raised in the Shenandoah every year
  • Even the water quality standards program, which had the noble goals of protecting high-quality streams from degradation and stopping pollution into already impaired streams, has been largely unimplemented

So we still have a lot to do to meet the goals of the 1972 Act so that our waterways are fishable, swimmable, and drinkable as the law intended.  And the 1972 Act didn’t even contemplate the issue of climate change, which sends more pollution streaming into waterways as extreme storm events get more frequent and which fuels the growth of bacteria, viruses, and algae.  Nor did it contemplate addressing environmental justice, ensuring that everyone has access to safe, healthy waterways, not just the wealthy.  

Nancy Stoner
Nancy Stoner, president

While we have a lot to do to realize the goals of the Clean Water Act, we also have new tools to help us achieve those goals:  advanced treatment technologies, mapping tools, water quality monitoring tools, drones and remote sensing, and even new ways of getting nature to help us to restore our waterways using filter feeders like freshwater mussels and oysters, restoring hydrology to disturbed wetlands, and by expanding our forests and native prairies.  

We have the know-how.   And everyone I have ever met loves clean water.  We all experience its beauty, its ability to calm, to soothe, to inspire.  So let’s press ahead, together—a clean water future awaits us.