Celebrating 40 Years of the Clean Water Act

I just got back from the annual Urban Watershed Sustainability Leadership Conference in Cincinnati, hosted by the U.S. Water Alliance.  The major theme was green infrastructure – things like roadside plantings, green roofs, and porous pavement that mimic the way nature handles rainwater – and it was inspiring to hear on-the-ground stories from so many cities making major investments in this smarter solution to chronic sewage overflows.  All of the speakers were genuinely excited about challenging themselves, as well as their colleagues in both the public and private sector, to fundamentally re-think the way they manage water in the urban environment. 

From Cleveland’s focus on re-purposing vacant lands, to Syracuse’s Save the Rain campaign, to Kansas City’s completion this year of about 150 green infrastructure projects in a single neighborhood, the conference highlighted communities that are “thinking outside the pipes”* to manage urban runoff in ways that help create healthier, more livable communities.

While the conference was chock full of engineers and municipal officials, rather than attorneys like me – presenters felt perfectly free to throw in a lawyer joke every now and then – it was clear to everyone there that the Clean Water Act is the most important driver behind these green infrastructure initiatives.  As in previous years of the conference, the featured cities’ efforts are directed specifically towards meeting Clean Water Act compliance schedules they have negotiated with state or federal regulatory agencies.  The provisions of that landmark federal law, which turns 40 years old today, have focused the energies and talents of conference attendees, as nothing else can, on keeping raw sewage from our urban waterways.

So even as we work to defend the Clean Water Act from those who would gut its core provisions, fight to restore protections eroded by misguided Supreme Court decisions, and push EPA to update regulations to reflect today’s best science, let’s also make sure today to celebrate the past successes of the Clean Water Act and look ahead to future successes that are taking shape now in cities across the nation.

*Credit goes to Nancy Stoner, EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Water, for that catchy phrase she used in her remarks at the conference.  (Catchy to all of us stormwater geeks, at any rate!)

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