40 Years Ago Clean Water Act Transformed How America Views Water, Time to Do it Again

I love to swim, and when you spend a lot of time in the water, you get a good sense of how America is treating its rivers, lakes, and oceans. Decades ago, I used to swim past factories and refineries dumping polluted waste right into Boston Harbor, and I dodged sewage and oily runoff in New York’s Hudson River. I saw similar contamination when I traveled and went swimming in local waters from the Gulf of Mexico to California’s beaches. Today, our waters are far cleaner. Industry has to follow strict guidelines for discharges and cities have cut down on sewage overflows. The last time I went swimming in the Hudson, the river felt fresh and bracing.

These changes did not occur by accident. They were driven by the Clean Water Act. They happened because forty years ago today, Congress passed this law and sparked a transformation in the way America views water.

We used to treat water bodies like big wet trashcans—easy places for factories to dump their industrial waste and for cities to unload their sewage. The Clean Water Act declared that nobody had the right to use our shared water resources as their private dumpster. It prohibited pollutant discharges into the nation’s waters unless you had a permit and met baseline standards.

Swimmers in Boston Harbor


Photo Credit: EPA

We still have a lot of work to do, but there is no doubt that our water is safer to fish from and cleaner to swim in than it was when Congress passed this law. Yet even as we continue to make progress, it is time for another transformative change.

Four decades ago, the Clean Water Act taught us that waterways don’t have to be dumping grounds. Today, it is showing us that waterways managed as part of larger natural systems deliver more benefits to more Americans.

Take the issue of stormwater. In most cities, rainwater falls on paved surfaces, picks up oil, chemicals, and raw sewage, and dumps it into our waterways. This stormwater runoff is now the largest source of water pollution in many parts of the nation and a leading cause of beach closures. Water managers are realizing that if we design our communities to act more like natural systems, we can capture rain where it falls. A 1-inch rainstorm falling on a 1-acre meadow, for instance, would typically produce enough runoff to fill 28 bathtubs. The same storm falling on a 1-acre paved parking lot would produce 448 bathtubs of runoff—approximately 16 times as much.

We don’t want to turn our built environment into grassy meadows, but we can create a similar effect throughout our communities. A solution called green infrastructure—things like permeable pavement, grassy traffic medians, pocket parks, and green roofs—has been proven to reduce runoff. It is also often much cheaper than conventional cement storm drains. When Staten Island tackled stormwater using green infrastructure, it saved the city $80 million, increased nearby property values, and brought much needed green space to urban neighborhoods.

Our communities also benefit when we manage headwater streams and isolated wetlands as part of a larger natural system. What happens to headwater streams, after all, affects downstream waters. And what happens to wetlands affects nearby streams. Near my family’s home in upstate New York, I walk past tiny brooks and small wetlands that nourish the streams that replenish our drinking water and feed the lake I love to swim in with my daughters. They are all connected, and if we do damage to one, we threaten the whole. Yet two court rulings and Bush administration guidelines now threaten protections for headwater streams and isolated wetlands, ignoring the scientific reality that this has consequences for entire watersheds.

In the coming months, we have two good opportunities to put this natural systems approach in place. The Environmental Protection Agency is poised to update standards for dealing with stormwater under the Clean Water Act, and the agency should use those standards to promote green infrastructure. The EPA must also adopt guidelines and permanent regulations to restore protections to headwater streams and isolated wetlands consistent with science and the law.

The Clean Water Act gives the agency the authority to make these improvements. Yet GOP lawmakers in the House are trying to gut the law and prevent further progress. Back in 1972, lawmakers recognized that cleaning our waterways was not a partisan issue, but a joint American undertaking that would benefit all of us. They passed the Clean Water Act with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses.

It is time to recapture that sense of common purpose and spark the next transformation that will make America’s water safer and cleaner for all of us.

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