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A milestone clean water anniversary to build upon

About the blog

Karine Rougé
Chief Executive Officer of Veolia North America’s Municipal Water.
  • milestone clean water anniversary to build upon

As the nation observes the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act (CWA) we are afforded an opportunity to reflect on the enormous progress we have made towards protecting and restoring our nation’s waterways, but also to look forward and consider the progress we must sustain if we are to protect our natural resources.

Originally passed in 1972, the CWA was a transformative piece of legislation enacted to essentially revolutionize America’s commitment to protecting and restoring the environmental integrity of the essential waterways that sustain our communities and ecosystems.

Before the passage of the CWA, many of our lakes, rivers, and streams were heavily polluted with raw sewage, industrial chemicals, and dangerous metals. Much of our drinking water was threatened by rampant industrial waste and sewage. Our wetlands were rapidly disappearing, and many of our rivers were routinely catching fire.

The newly established EPA was given broad authority to set and enforce water quality regulations, and to monitor the quality of those natural resources under assault. With very ambitious goals, the CWA committed enormous resources to save our imperiled waterways.

As a result, our nation has made significant strides in reducing direct discharges of untreated sewage and chemical wastes. Many of our waterways are observably cleaner than they were decades ago. For example, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, largely considered a major catalyst in the creation of the CWA after catching fire in 1969, is once again able to sustain wildlife and suitable for community recreation.

With very ambitious goals, the CWA committed enormous resources to save our imperiled waterways

Yet, water quality improvements have slowed in recent decades. According to the EPA’s National Water Quality Inventory Report, nearly 70% of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs, and 90% of the surveyed ocean and near coastal areas continue to violate water quality standards. All 50 states have experienced harmful algal blooms over the last decade. Equally troubling is that to date the EPA has only assessed half of U.S. waters.

In half a century we have never actually achieved the water quality goals stated in the CWA: “to make all U.S. waters fishable and swimmable by 1983, to have zero water pollution discharge by 1985, and to prohibit discharge of toxic amounts of toxic pollutants.”

While the CWA has allowed us to address the sources of pollution that were plaguing our waterways decades ago, it falls short of today’s challenges; Things we thought weren’t a problem when the CWA was enacted have now become problems. Runoff pollution from indirect sources such as stormwater effluent is the leading cause of environmental damage to our waterways and yet it is not being addressed by the Clean Water Act in its current iteration.

There are additional concerns. We are discovering the presence and impact of “forever” chemicals, the infrastructure that manages our water supplies is aging, and the effects of climate change all pose significant threats to the integrity of our waterways.

Fifty years later, we once again find ourselves at a pivotal point for maintaining and improving our water quality. We must utilize improved pollution control technologies and the knowledge we’ve gathered over the last half century to rise to this moment. While we should celebrate that the Cuyahoga River no longer catches fire, we must carefully consider how to ensure it never does again.

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