Don’t Mess with Success

Photo by Tusik Only

The Clean Water Act has been an unmitigated success since it was passed in 1972. So why is the Trump administration rolling it back?

Back then, more than two-thirds of U.S. waters were unfit for swimming, fishing, or drinking water use.  The Potomac River had been declared a national disgrace, Lake Erie was dead, and the Cuyahoga River had as recently as 1969 been on fire.  Since then, through investments in clean water that Americans have made in sewage treatment plants, controls on industrial effluent, planting trees, saving farmland and more, our rivers are reviving, and our cities and towns are reclaiming their waterfronts.  We see that right here in Washington, DC, the home of the US Congress that passed the Clean Water Act and also the home of our nation’s river, the Potomac River, which I have the good fortune to work to protect.  The Potomac is on the mend; thousands are out enjoying it every weekend kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing, and even open water swimming – and developments are springing up along it from National Harbor, to the Georgetown waterfront, to the Wharf.

So why has the Clean Water Act worked?  It has worked because it stops pollution from being discharged into the tributaries that flow into our rivers, lakes, and coastal waters from upstream waters.  The new rule redefines the term “tributaries,” so that headwater streams, mountain streams, and desert streams that have historically been protected are now excluded from Clean Water Act protection.  When tributaries are not protected, instead of discharging clean water into downstream waterways, they carry pollution into the larger rivers, lakes, and coastal waters into which they flow.   The inevitable result of letting pollution flow unchecked into our waterways is fish kills, closed beaches, harmful algal outbreaks, and contaminated drinking water supplies.  Some states have good programs in place to protect tributaries, but others do not, and a downstream state like MD has little protection for its rivers or for the Chesapeake Bay from the pollution flowing into the state from upstream.

It is important to keep in mind that if a waterway is not protected under the Clean Water Act, none of the Clean Water Act programs applies to it – so it could be bulldozed, paved over, turned into a garbage dump, or filled with toxins or sewage that will inevitably flow downstream.  It also wouldn’t be eligible for many federal cost share and grant funding programs that restore waterways that are not yet safe for swimming, fishing, or to serve as drinking water sources.  Those programs pay to keep sewage, animal waste, pesticides, toxic chemicals, road salt, automotive fluids and more out of our waterways.

The Clean Water Act is also our best defense against the adverse impacts to waterways that we see as a result of climate change.  The Clean Water Act was passed before we knew that climate change would cause more extreme storm events, sea level rise, and higher air and water temperatures resulting in more droughts, more flooding, more polluted runoff, loss of cold water fisheries, faster growth of nuisance algae, and more.  But even though in 1972 we had not yet seen the effects of climate on our environment, the framers of the Act had the foresight to protect the small streams and wetlands that capture floodwaters, absorb pollution, and serve as refugia for trout and other sensitive species.  Now more than ever, the wisdom of their approach is apparent.

The Clean Water Act was designed to ensure that Americans can be confident that wherever they travel in the US, the beaches are safe for swimming, our rivers are safe for fishing, and our drinking water sources are safe. Let’s not mess with success.


NANCY STONER, President, Potomac Riverkeeper Network and former Acting Assistant Administrator for Water, Environmental Protection Agency