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The Clean Water Act Turns 40

In the annals of the environmental movement, October 18 is no average date. For it was exactly 40 years ago, on October 18, 1972, that the Clean Water Act officially became the law of the land, setting in motion the processes, practices, and policies that have led to major progress in water quality. Across the nation, we reap the benefits of the Clean Water Act’s mandates every day when waterbodies once thought to be beyond hope for restoration are once again used for fishing, swimming, and more. When viewed together, pre- and post-Clean Water Act photos—like those here of the Nashua River, which was often brightly colored in the 1960s from paper mills’ toxic waste and declared “biologically dead”—create a powerful juxtaposition and a potent symbol of how far we’ve come.

Children ejoying clean water at a playground fountain

Yet, as we rightly celebrate such achievements on the 40th anniversary of the Act’s enactment, NEIWPCC believes—like many other organizations and officials—that progress on water quality has plateaued. “We all must realize that in its present form, the CWA is simply no longer achieving water quality improvements as initially intended,” says NEIWPCC Executive Director Ron Poltak. “While the fundamental principles of the Act remain sound, those principles have not been comprehensively implemented or defined through the regulatory programs that support them. The law is old, and so much has changed—in technology, science, and elsewhere. The problem is not that the Clean Water Act is not working; rather, the problem is that it can only accomplish what it was designed to do: reduce the direct discharge of raw sewage and other pollutants into our nation’s waters. For the multitude of other problems we face today as water quality program administrators, the Act offers little support or resolution.”

In the work for clean water, we currently face many complex challenges not anticipated by the Act’s original authors, including aging water and wastewater infrastructure, funding needs, nonpoint source program implementation, wetlands protection, emerging contaminants, and climate change. While the law has undergone some revisions since 1972, it’s been 25 years since the last major amendments. The time has come to move forward with improvements to the Act that are feasible and effective, to devise a new approach to regulate our water resources that takes into account the issues and needs that dominate present conditions.

By setting national goals and objectives, technology-based and water quality-based standards, funding wastewater facilities and research, and creating an administrative and enforcement structure, the Clean Water Act enabled our nation to address our polluted waters. But progress has slowed at a time when we must think toward the future to ensure that clean water will be available to sustainably serve our economic, social, and environmental purposes.

To see what others across the nation have on their minds as the Clean Water Act reaches its 40th anniversary, we invite you to scroll through the list below. We’ve collected some great quotes from those reminiscing about pre-Clean Water Act days as well as those ruminating on the possible direction of the Clean Water Act in the future. Click on the hyperlinks to view the full articles, commentaries, and videos. Please note that these quotes and links are for informational purposes only and in no way indicate NEIWPCC’s endorsement of the positions expressed.

Articles/Commentaries Available Online

“Fortieth birthdays often inspire a mix of fond memories and nagging regrets, and the Clean Water Act's big milestone is no different. Few who know the law neglect to sing its praises, but most make sure to mention its shortcomings, too.” Russell McLendon (eco-journalist), The Clean Water Act turns 40, Mother Nature Network, Sept. 4, 2012.

“This October 18, on the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, take a moment, as I will, to remember a favorite river and how far we have come in cleaning up our rivers.” Wm. Robert Irvin (President, American Rivers), The Clean Water Act Turns 40, Huffington Post Green Blog, Oct. 9, 2012.

“2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the nation's law for protecting our most irreplaceable resource. Every person deserves clean water—it is vital for our health, communities, environment and economy. We have made great progress in reducing pollution during the past 40 years. But many challenges remain and we must work together to protect clean water for our families and future generations.” U.S. EPA, Water is Worth It, last updated Oct. 1, 2012.

“The anniversary of this transformative Act provides the nation with an opportunity to reflect on both the progress that has been achieved and the way in which it was accomplished. We must also understand, however, that the task is far from over. More effort will be required not only to deflect the current backlash against strong environmental protection but to complete the job which was begun in 1972.” William Andreen (Edgar L. Clarkson Professor of Law, University of Alabama School of Law), The Clean Water Act at 40: Finishing a Task Well Begun, Center for Progressive Reform Blog, Oct. 9, 2012.

“As the Clean Water Act (CWA) turns 40, it is useful to compare it to the cars on the road in 1972…at some point, it becomes inefficient, if not impossible, to keep a 40-year-old car running. Even as individual parts are replaced, the car can no longer perform the functions and services that it did when it was built. The same can be said of the CWA. It is time to think of a trade-in for something suitable to the challenges we will face managing the natural resources that we need to survive and thrive.” Dan Tarlock (Distinguished Professor of Law, Chicago- Kent College of Law), Forty Years Later, Time to Turn in the CWA Clunker for Something Suited for the 21st Century, Center for Progressive Reform Blog, Oct. 12, 2012.

“The Clean Water Act represented an unprecedented national effort to preserve the integrity of the nation's waters, and the amount of waters restored since 1972 serves as a reminder of what we can do if the public will is there…Now is the time to celebrate the progress our country has made on water quality, to reaffirm the commitment to clean water, and to continue to work to achieve the goals of the Clean Water Act.” OMB Watch, Celebrating a Public Protections Milestone: The 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, Oct. 10, 2012.

“Thousands of public servants around the country, many of whom have retired or are retiring, deserve our heartfelt thanks for working diligently over the years to get the Clean Water Act in place and working to clean up our waterways.” Todd Ambs (President, The River Network), 40 Thoughts for 40 Years: The Clean Water Act Four Decades Later, The River Network, Jan. 26, 2012.

“A lot, but not enough, accomplished. Many interesting and important things still left to do.” Paul Greenberg, The Clean Water Act at 40: There’s Still Much Left to Do, Yale Environment 360, May 21, 2012.

“As a result of the raw waste from the paper mills in the White Mountains and the Nashua River, from the slaughter houses in Manchester, from the textile mills of Lowell and Lawrence, the Merrimack River was totally polluted. Yet many communities were still taking water directly from the river as their main drinking water source… Back in those days, everyone was protesting the Vietnam War but students were also becoming more concerned about our environment.” Charles “Chuck” Conway (former Manager of Training Operations, NEIWPCC), It’s Been an Interesting Journey, Mar. 2012.

“By 1976, the River Charles was somewhat improved as it flowed by my high school in Dedham right below the sports fields. However, if one of the crew team members fell by accident into the water, they were still rushed off to the hospital to get a tetanus shot. The next day, the rest of the student body whispered about the poor swimmer and kept their distance.” Elizabeth Soderstrom (Senior Director of Development, American Rivers), The Clean Water Act Through the Generations: Baby Boomers Generation, The River Blog, Oct. 4, 2012.

“My parents say a favorite childhood activity as they walked to school was seeing what color the local textile mill had turned Dye Creek. By the time I was walking to school, Dye Creek hadn't run red—or purple or yellow or black— for years. Instead, we could wade in the creek turning stones in search of crawdads. It was healthy enough that aquatic life actually lived in it again. We have the Clean Water Act to thank for that.” Marie Kellner (Water Associate, Idaho Conservation League), A Happy Birthday for Us All—the Clean Water Act Turns 40!, Idaho Conservation League Blog, Oct. 20, 2012.

“I was a school kid growing up in Green Bay. One of my summertime memories was putting a pillow over my head at night to block the odors from the Fox River, polluted by industrial, municipal and agricultural wastes. Our home was about a mile downwind from the Fox, which had become one of the dirtiest rivers in America. The Fox has still has some problems today, but thanks to the Clean Water Act, it doesn’t stink to high heaven, and the cleaner river has become a major asset for my old hometown, lined with marinas, restaurants and other attractions.” Bill Berry (state columnist), Clean Water Act a big help, but work not done, The Capital Times, Oct. 8, 2012.

“Before the Clean Water Act, pollution was so bad that water bodies like the Cuyahoga River in Ohio and the Charles River in Massachusetts caught on fire faster than a batch of birthday candles. The Charles River is even featured in an aptly named song called “Dirty Water,” a 1960s hit by the Standells.” Mekell Mikell (Communications specialist, National Wildlife Federation), Turning 40: Avoiding a Midlife Crisis for the Clean Water Act, Huffington Post Green Blog, Apr. 30, 2012.

“At least 13 fires were reported on the Cuyahoga River between 1868 and 1969, but it was not alone in its burning and oozing. Most major cities dumped raw sewage directly into their rivers prior to the Act. Boston Harbor was considered a cesspool. Lake Erie was declared biologically dead. In 1965, the Potomac River was called a “national disgrace” by President Lyndon B. Johnson, so polluted that it was recommended you get a tetanus shot if you fell into the water.” Jenni Frankenberg Veal (Freelance Writer), A watershed moment for the Clean Water Act: 40 years and counting,, Oct. 14, 2012.

“The most famous and most candid assessment of the nation’s waters in the pre-Clean Water Act era came from Time magazine, which proclaimed Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, flowing into Lake Erie through Cleveland, among the worst in the country. “No Visible Life,” the editorial lamented. “Some river! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly. ‘He decays.’” Brett Walton (Reporter, Circle of Blue), Voices from the Past: Nixon, Congress Debate the Clean Water Act, Circle of Blue, Oct. 11, 2012.  

“Is the work done?  No.  More than 150 years of pollution can’t be reversed overnight.” Jim Bradley (Senior Director of Government Relations, American Rivers), The Clean Water Act Through the Generations: Generation X Series, The River Blog, Oct. 8, 2012.

“Although we still have work to do to improve our Nation’s water quality, we also need to inject some much needed common sense into the CWA. This includes providing the flexibility necessary to meet requirements in a way that is best for a given community…” David Williams (former President, NACWA) & Ken Kirk (Executive Director, NACWA), A Message from NACWA’s President & Executive Director, NACWA Year-At-A-Glance 2011-2012.

“If we value water, we will treat it as the critical resource that it is, and we will continue to work toward improvements in access, quality, and use. The nation needs a 21st century water policy that will restructure and streamline Federal water programs, integrate energy and water policies, invest in water systems for underserved communities, improve water-quality monitoring and treatment, modernize and enforce outdated national water quality laws (including the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act), and modify or eliminate subsidy programs that lead to unsustainable water use. A first step should be acknowledgement by our elected officials of their awareness of the problems and their willingness to work toward effective solutions.” Peter Gleick (President, Pacific Institute) and Juliet Christian-Smith (Senior Research Associate, Pacific Institute), Time for a 21st Century U.S. Water Policy, Huffington Post Green Blog, Sept. 27, 2012.

“We need another 40 years of progress. We must renew, revitalize, and reinvest in our commitment to clean water.” NACWA, WEF, & ACWA, The Clean Water Act at 40…Past Success and a 2020 Vision for the Future, Oct. 2012.

Videos Available Online

“Just prior to action of the Congress on the Clean Water Act of 1972 the Cuyahoga River had caught on fire. Life magazine had a picture on its cover of Lake Erie with the word “dead.” Soap suds were floating down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in huge mounds; people were turning on their faucets for clean water and getting suds out of them instead of fresh water. There was an outcry against this pollution and destruction against the nation’s fresh water resources.” Jim Oberstar (former Congressman), Oberstar on the Clean Water Act, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (Oct. 2012).

“It seems like only yesterday when you look back in the seventies with the mayors of this nation working with Senator Muskie to pass this Act. That was a time when I was a young boy and I had black hair. And later we created EPA with President Nixon. It was a very, very significant time for our country and for the environmental health of our country. This legislation that was passed 40 years ago set this country on a course of environmental responsibility.” Tom Cochran (CEO and Executive Director, U.S. Conference of Mayors), Clean Water Act Turns 40, U.S. Conference of Mayors panel discussion (May 31, 2012).

“One of the most significant environmental laws ever passed in that age of the 1970s when that great wave of environmental laws came into being…The Clean Water Act, to my mind, was a very successful Act. But, it focused on a very limited number of pollution sources…It is limited in its scope and I think we need to recognize that as we go forward for the next 40 years…” G. Tracy Mehan III (Principal, The Cadmus Group), The Clean Water Act After 40 Years: What Has It Accomplished? How Do We Fulfill Its Promise?, Moos Family Speaker Series on Water Resources (June 25, 2012).

“If one wants to measure the legal salience of a law, such as the Clean Water Act, there are many different matrixes one could use—one of which is the number of appearances that a law makes before the Supreme Court. Yesterday I counted 35 cases starting…in 1972…through the Sackett decision, which the court decided just yesterday. Thirty-five cases that dealt in some significant fashion with Clean Water Act issues. In other words, nearly once a year the Supreme Court is dealing with the Clean Water Act, which says a lot about its role in the nation’s environmental laws.” Robert Glicksman (Professor of Environmental, George Washington University Law School), The Clean Water Act at 40, The J.B. & Maurice C. Shapiro Environmental Law Symposium (Mar. 22, 2012).

“We need smarter investment to advance clean water goals. We need a 20-20 vision for clean water that acknowledges the need to adapt the Clean Water Act to the 21st century world. We need an Act that can not only co-exist but can incentivize entities to adjust to an energy-constrained world, a water-constrained world, a funding-constrained world, a climate-driven world, and a world where non-regulated entities are now the predominant polluters of our nations waters. So let’s applaud the Clean Water Act for 4 decades of achievement and commit to taking the steps we need to ensure continued water quality gains in the future.” Ken Kirk (Executive Director, NACWA), NACWA, WEF, ACWA Clean Water Act 40th Anniversary Celebration (Oct. 15, 2012).


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