Clean Water Act at 45: Despite Success, It's Under Attack

Congress enacted the law in response to rampant contamination of waterways and brought about important improvements across the nation.

Today is the 45th anniversary of the adoption of the Clean Water Act. This post takes a quick look at where we were, where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going on clean water policy.

The Bad Old Days Before 1972

Congress enacted the law in response to rampant contamination of waterways and brought about important improvements across the nation. By the 1960s, pollution brought numerous water bodies to the brink of death. The Cuyahoga River, running through Cleveland, Ohio into Lake Erie, became so polluted with industrial waste in the 1950s and 1960s that it famously caught fire on more than one occasion.

Lake Erie itself received so much municipal waste and agricultural runoff that it was projected to become biologically dead. Unchecked water pollution in inland waterways accounted for record fish kills; for example, some 26 million fish died because of the contamination of Lake Thonotosassa, Florida. Industry discharged mercury into the Detroit River at a rate of between 10 and 20 pounds per day, causing in-stream water to exceed the Public Health Service limit for mercury six times over. Waterways in many cities across the country served as nothing more than sewage receptacles for industrial and municipal waste.  The rate of wetlands loss from the 1950s to the 1970s was approximately 450,000 acres per year.

Decades of Progress

Because of the law, however, the nation’s waters today are substantially better off. Much of this improvement came about because of the Act’s numerous pollution prevention, control, and cleanup requirements. The law says that wastewater dischargers and sewage plants can’t dump into our waterways without pollution-limiting permits; facilities storing a lot of oil near water bodies must develop oil spill prevention and response protocols; and states must plan and prepare for the cleanup of protected waters that are too polluted to be used for things like fishing or swimming. Additionally, industrial and commercial developers ordinarily need approval before filling in waters like wetlands and sometimes must mitigate their impact by creating, preserving, or enhancing other water resources. The act also prohibits the discharge of “any radiological, chemical, or biological warfare agent, any high-level radioactive waste, or any medical waste” into a variety of waters, and entities disposing of sewage sludge that could pollute such waters must abide by pollution control standards.

The real-world results of this comprehensive suite of protections would take too long to summarize, so I’ll provide just two examples. Industry-specific discharge standards now prevent more than 700 billion pounds of toxic pollutants every year from being dumped into the nation’s waters. And the rate of wetlands loss decreased substantially compared to the pre-Clean Water Act era.

Personally, I can’t overstate how important this law has been—and continues to be—to my daily life. I grew up in Massachusetts, where the water pollution was so bad in Boston Harbor and the Charles River that the Standells’ “Dirty Water” became the city’s unofficial anthem. I remember going into Boston on a boat for Fourth of July fireworks and my mom telling me not to even touch the Charles. My family also spent a lot of weekends by the Pemigewasset River in New Hampshire, which “was for years one of the most polluted rivers in New England, the repository for raw sewage from factories and towns,” and which “emitted an overwhelming odor and was known to peel the paint off buildings located on its banks.” Since the passage of the Act, these water bodies are significantly improved—my sisters and I could swim in the Pemigewasset, and people now can even swim in the Charles.

In my hometown of Marshfield (growing up there pretty much destined me for a career of wetlands work!), coastal marshes trap pollutants and the town sewage treatment plant must meet pollution standards, both of which help ensure safe swimming at nearby Green Harbor Beach.

Now that I live in Arlington, Virginia, my family’s drinking water comes from the Potomac River, the pollution of which motivated members of Congress to adopt the 1972 Act. My kids also kayak and paddleboard on the Potomac, and we frequent spots on the Anacostia River waterfront in D.C., a river that—thanks to the Clean Water Act—is subject to cleanup programs for sewage overflows, trash, and decades-old industrial toxins.

Water Conditions Today

However, despite the pollution controls Congress adopted in the Clean Water Act, most of the nation’s waters still face major challenges to their health 45 years later. The country remains far short of the Clean Water Act’s goal of swimmable and fishable waters (a goal Congress intended the country to reach by 1983). Consider a few facts:

  • Lakes and ponds: The most recent available data from states indicate that, of assessed lakes, reservoirs, and ponds, 70.5 percent (12,918,363 acres) are impaired for some water quality standard. The 2012 National Lakes Assessment found that 35 percent of lakes assessed had excess nitrogen and 40 percent had excess phosphorus. Moreover, the Assessment reported “that 31% of lakes have degraded benthic macroinvertebrate communities, which include small aquatic creatures like snails and mayflies.” And some indicators of lake health worsened since the 2007 assessment; in that five-year period, the Assessment examined “the density of cyanobacteria cells, which can produce cyanotoxins, as an indicator of toxic exposure risk,” and it showed “8.3% more lakes in the most disturbed condition in 2012 than in 2007.” Additionally, detection of the algal toxin microcystin, which prompted the multi-day contamination event in Toledo, Ohio, that deprived several hundred thousand people of drinking water, increased by 9.5 percent.
  • Rivers and streams: Based on state water quality inventories, 52.7 percent of assessed rivers and streams (a total of 579,166 miles – more than twice the distance to the moon) fail to meet one or more state water quality standards. Similarly, the 2008/2009 Rivers and Streams Assessment paints a discouraging picture. Only 28 percent of rivers and streams were in good condition and 46 percent were in poor condition. More than 40 percent of rivers and streams have excess nutrients. Nearly a quarter of river and stream miles have bacteria levels above thresholds that indicate a threat to human health when people are exposed via recreation. And “[o]ver 13,000 miles of rivers are found to have mercury in fish tissue at levels that exceed thresholds protective of human health.”
  • Wetlands: In the 2011 National Wetland Condition Assessment, fewer than 50 percent of wetlands (48 percent) were in good biological condition and nearly one-third (32 percent) were in poor condition. Moreover, as documented in the most recent report to Congress on the status and trends in the nation’s wetlands, the country continues to experience a net loss of wetlands and “[f]or the first time in 50 years, the rate of net wetland loss had accelerated, increasing by a whopping 140 percent from the previous survey. The nation lost 45,000 more wetland acres per year during 2004−2009 than during the previous period. Even worse, wetland losses have recently accelerated in areas of particular importance to waterfowl, such as the Prairie Pothole Region.”
  • Other waters: Of assessed bays and estuaries, 79.5 percent (44,692 square miles) were found to be impaired for some water quality standard. In 2017, the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” was the largest ever measured since surveying started in 1985; this year it “is 8,776 square miles, an area about the size of New Jersey.”

Considering these facts, the last thing the nation should be doing is backing away from vigorous implementation of the Act.

A Clear and Present Danger: The Trump Administration

Unfortunately, President Trump and his pro-polluter EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, are working at a breakneck pace to break the Clean Water Act and other clean water protections. Over the past few months, the Trump administration initiated efforts that could weaken or kill several essential clean water safeguards adopted or proposed by the prior administration:

And those are just a few of the water-specific actions.

Thankfully, EPA cannot simply wish away clean water safeguards to appease pals in polluting industries. These actions can’t happen without EPA allowing public input on their plans, and without following the law, including the protections in the Clean Water Act. And when EPA gets it wrong, citizen groups can go to court. NRDC will fight the Trump/Pruitt dirty water agenda every step of the way. Please let the administration know you’ll fight the rollbacks too.

In the meantime, raise a glass—of clean drinking water, or beer crafted by our Brewers for Clean Water friends, or whatever suits you—to the foresight of our leaders 45 years ago, and to never retreating in the fight for clean water.