Turning the tide with the Clean Water Act

A clean stream

Courtesy morguefile


By Navis Bermudez

In 1969 a rail car passing over the Cuyahoga River set fire to a huge oil slick floating downstream. The flaming river became a powerful symbol for the abysmal conditions of our nation’s lakes and rivers.

Only a few short decades ago our nation’s waters were in serious trouble: Boston Harbor was little more than a cesspool; Lake Erie was declared biologically dead; and cities that lined the Potomac, Hudson, and Delaware simply dumped their raw sewage directly into the water.

The public outrage that resulted from the Cuyahoga River fire led to the passage of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972. The bill had such tremendous support in Congress that when President Nixon vetoed it, Congress overrode it in just one day, with overwhelming bipartisan margins in both houses of Congress.

Commonly regarded as one of the most successful U.S. environmental laws, the CWA is by far the most comprehensive U.S. water law. The EPA estimates that the law keeps more than 900 million pounds of sewage and a billion pounds of toxic chemicals out of our waterways every year. The Clean Water Act has had many successes:

  • Today about 60% of our rivers and 55% of our lakes are safe for swimming and fishing compared to just 36% in 1970.
  • Cleaner water has increased the size and variety of fish populations in our waters. Striped bass stocks in every coastal state from Maine to North Carolina have been declared fully recovered.
  • Wetlands losses are estimated at one-fourth of the rate in 1972 (approximately 450,000 acres of wetlands each year).
  • Americans served by sewage treatment facilities has more than doubled in the last 30 years.
  • Oil spilled in U.S. waters has declined from 15 million per year in the mid 1970s to approximately 1 million per year in the late 1990s.

Even though the Clean Water Act has resulted in significant and measurable improvements to water quality in the U.S., there are still many challenges ahead if we are to protect and restore the health of our nation’s waters. Although it was enacted more than 30 years ago, the CWA still is not fully implemented. And in cases where the Act has been implemented, a serious lack of enforcement of the law exists. In addition, funding for important CWA programs is woefully inadequate and receives cuts every year. Because of this, the Sierra Club has made the protection of our water resources and the defense of the CWA a national priority.

The most serious threats to the continued success of the Clean Water Act are threats to the fundamental aspects of the law. The Bush administration has used a narrow 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling to limit the scope of CWA protections for the nation’s waters.  While the administration has opted not to officially redefine the waters protected by the CWA, they used a policy directive issued in January 2003 to unofficially remove protection from a broad array of the nation’s waters. In addition, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear two important Clean Water Act cases—Carabell v. United States and United States v. Rapanos—that address whether the Clean Water Act protects tributaries that flow into larger water bodies and their adjacent wetlands and whether Congress has the authority under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to protect such waters. A negative ruling could remove all federal limits on pollution and destroy millions of acres of valuable wetlands and countless streams that have been protected since the Act’s passage in 1972.

With 218 million Americans living within ten miles of a polluted lake, river, stream, or coastal area, and 40% of the nation's assessed waters still unsafe for fishing and swimming there is still much work to be done. Want to get involved? Find out what your local Group is doing, join a local water-monitoring group to help protect a stream or wetland in your community, and stay informed via http://www.sierraclub.org/cleanwater.

Navis Bermudez is the Washington D.C. representative of the Sierra Club’s Clean Water

Published March 2006