Connecting Waterpeople

50 years of the Clean Water Act in the United States

  • 50 years of the Clean Water Act in the United States

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States. An Associated Press article reflects on what has been accomplished, and what challenges remain 50 years after this landmark piece of legislation was enacted.

Before the Clean Water Act, raw sewage and industrial waste was routinely dumped into surface waters. Growing concern for controlling water pollution was fuelled by episodes like the 1969 fire in the Cuyahoga River, covered in oil slicks as a result of industrial pollutant discharges as it flowed through the City of Cleveland. After key amendments, the first major U.S. law to address water pollution – the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 – became known as the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained. It also gave the EPA authority to set wastewater standards for industry, and funded the construction of sewage treatment plants.

The Cuyahoga River was not the only polluted river in the U.S. 50 years ago; water quality in many parts of the country was deplorable. At the time pollution meant a thriving industry and a booming economy. The Cuyahoga River had caught fire at least ten times since the end of the 19th century, and some of those fires killed people and caused millions of dollars of damages. While the 1969 incident was short-lived and not a surprise to those working nearby, it became a symbol for the environmental movement, together with other environmental disasters such as the massive oil spill off the Californian coast near Santa Barbara that same year. The stage was set for stricter government regulation to control pollution, the establishment of the Environment Protection Agency in 1970, and the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

While not a single fish was found in the Cuyahoga River in a 1967 survey, there are now more than 70 species. “I have folks come into my office routinely from other states and around the world, wanting to see the Cuyahoga River,” said Kurt Princic, a district chief for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “They want to know how we got from where it was in the ’60s to where it is today. It starts with the Clean Water Act, partnerships and hard work.”

Still, the Cuyahoga watershed is listed as a Great Lakes Area of Concern, due to erosion and water quality issues from municipal and agricultural discharges, and historic contamination. While the improvements in water quality under the Clean Water Act are widely acknowledged, challenges remain.

The Act requires the EPA, together with states, tribes, and territories to monitor and report on the quality of water bodies, but only about half of U.S. waters have been assessed to date, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The Environmental Integrity Project has found that based on those reports, more than 50% of river and stream miles and lake acres across the U.S. are still so polluted that they are classified as “impaired”, meaning they do not meet the standards for recreation, aquatic life, fish consumption, or as drinking water sources.

An area that has been identified as requiring further action is runoff pollution from non-point sources, such as fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural land, or toxic chemicals from city streets, nowadays a leading cause of water quality issues. For the most part, farmland runoff pollution is controlled through voluntary programmes that provide financial assistance to farmers so they implement good practices. Another problem is the EPA has not updated technology-based limits for water pollution control systems used by industries, some of them for more than 30 years, even though it is mandated to do so every five years to keep pace with technological advancements.

Furthermore, the protection status of wetlands has led to 40 years of battles in court, as only those wetlands adjacent to lakes, rivers and streams are legally protected under the Act. Wetlands that are not directly connected to a larger water body and ephemeral streams are not guaranteed protection.

Emerging threats will also need to be addressed, such as widespread pollution of rivers, lakes, and groundwater by PFAS, and failures in water and wastewater infrastructure driven by a changing climate. Environmental justice – which refers to the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards for all people – is another outstanding issue. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has highlighted the progress made to curtail pollution in the past 50 years, acknowledging the EPA has “some more work to do”. He said the funding provided by the infrastructure package will help the EPA apply the law in partnership with states and local authorities: “so no matter the color of your skin ... or your ZIP code, you can enjoy safe, reliable water”.

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