By Heather Radcliffe
October 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and 35 years since its last major amendments. While there is much to celebrate — undeniably, significant progress in water quality has been made since 1972 — it is time to move forward from boasting that our rivers no longer catch fire. Despite more than forty years of regulation, “the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” have not, in the words of the act, been “restore[d] and maintain[ed],” and all our nation’s waters have not achieved the act’s fishable, swimmable goal (33 U.S.C. §125(a)).
In 2012, as an intern in the Communications Division at NEIWPCC, I wrote a paper, “Reauthorization of the Clean Water Act,” which began with almost the same two introductory sentences as above; merely a different timeframe. Now, 10 years into my career at NEIWPCC as the director of water resource protection programs, the same statements hold true. While the CWA — originally written to address the demands of society and the environment as they existed in 1948 and 1972 — succeeded in reducing the point sources it was meant to, namely, the direct discharge of raw sewage and other pollutants into our nation’s waters, we continue to face many complex challenges not anticipated by the original authors of the act.
The 2012 paper, reprinted as a special report in the 2015 issue of “Interstate Waters,” highlighted a slew of current water challenges across our nation, including jurisdiction, aging water and wastewater infrastructure, funding needs and affordability, a watershed approach, nonpoint-source pollution, green infrastructure, the energy-water nexus, and climate change. These issues still exist today.
In October 2020, NEIWPCC updated our “Water Program Priorities,” articulating the programmatic goals of our organization. These primary areas of concern provide a snapshot of the evolving water-related topics on which NEIWPCC is prepared to make progress, and on which our member states have indicated interest in our attention. The priorities include:
These are areas of national importance, for affluent communities, for underserved and underrepresented communities, for all of us who require access to clean and safe water—which is, in fact, all of us.
Investment in wastewater and drinking water infrastructure is also one of the highest priorities of our member states, and the availability of federal funds is the key to the feasibility of catching up on the backlog of necessary work. Congress has heard the call. They have passed the single largest federal investment in water. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is poised to address the undervalued wastewater and drinking water infrastructure that is essential to the health and safety of our nation. Adequate funding is needed to ensure governments are able to reasonably and fully execute the CWA’s mandates and goals. Will this law move us toward more fishable, swimmable waters? It will certainly help immensely and we who work in organizations with the mission of advancing clean water are thankful for the increased financial support. Yet the question remains: when will we have a new water champion to modernize the CWA? At a time when water infrastructure is forefront in the minds of those working on the Hill, is it ripe for review?
We can continue to highlight the same challenges; we can continue to document the same priorities. But what we truly need is action. At NEIWPCC, we are prepared to use our values of leadership, collaboration, education, service, and science to collaborate on clean water and environmental science challenges across shared regions, ecosystems, and areas of expertise. The CWA does not address groundwater and interconnected watersheds; it does not address emerging and already emerged contaminants such as the headliner PFAS; it does not address environmental justice.
As we celebrate this significant milestone anniversary of the CWA, we look to a new generation to champion the need for its modernization.
Heather Radcliffe is the director of NEIWPCC’s Water Resource Programs and staff attorney. This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 edition of “Interstate Waters” magazine.