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Where Did the Clean Water Act Come From?

December 19, 2012

As the year comes to a close it is worth remembering the Clean Water Act turned 40 on October 18.  The bill moved through Congress (after an override of President Richard Nixon’s veto) at a time when legislators were not just giving lip-service to balancing economic development and the environment.

There are many things to celebrate about the CWA, including the fact that many (but not all) of the nation’s water-ways are cleaner than they were in 1972.  The most cited examples: industrial rivers like the Cuyahoga don’t catch on fire anymore and there is less raw sewage in waters of the United States.

There are also many reasons behind the CWA’s successes.  Sewage and pollution point source discharges from a pipe into navigable waters of the US must be permitted.  Citizens and state agencies use different sections of the CWA to identify point and non-point source pollution, design stream restoration programs, and de-list once impaired segments.  Wetlands – nature’s sponges – can be protected from dredging and filling.  Citizens also have the power to comment on National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits, to influence agency rule-making (like power plant water withdrawal technology), and to initiate lawsuits for non-compliance.

The CWA is a powerful piece of environmental legislation that works from the ground-up.  It is “one of the great success stories of environmental law,” according to James Salzman.  You can learn more about the CWA and its tool box by surfing to River Network’s “Introduction to the CWA Course.”

At its heart, the CWA’s simple premise is that all waters of the US should be drinkable, fishable, and swimmable.

But where did this legal instrument come from?  First, the impetus behind a national clean water policy was not entirely ecological.  It was not designed to save endangered species.  Nor was the goal to halt development.  The reason was actually the opposite and much more basic: to promote equitable economic development in shared watersheds.

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 (FWPCA) emerged soon after World War II.  From a post-war economic big-bang, the modern suburban landscape – including rows of identical homes for the baby boomers to grow-up in, strip malls, supermarkets, and ribbons of interstate highway to tie everything together – coalesced.  This growth produced a tidal wave of untreated sewage, industrial pollution, and agricultural run-off that flowed downstream, threating economic development.  Citizens, politicians, local boosters and state agency representatives quickly learned to love clean water.

Interest in cleaning up pollution warmed after 1956 when Congress added a grant program to the FWPCA providing communities with money to build sewage treatment plants.  The basic step of wastewater treatment made it possible for upstream and downstream communities to use the same water sources to carry treated municipal effluent away, provide municipal drinking water supplies, and assimilate industrial waste.  This early national water policy, however, had a poor enforcement mechanism.  And this is what made the FWPCA of 1972 – aka the Clean Water Act – different from its predecessors.  The CWA included, among many other elements noted above, an enforceable permitting system administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.

By the 1960s, everybody understood that without clean water there would be no economic development.  I don’t mean to imply that paddlers, anglers, and professionals didn’t understand ecology, didn’t care about aquatic organisms, or didn’t have a capacity to think-like-a-watershed before 1972: they did.  Countless citizens, lawyers, scientists and legislators influenced federal water policy in important ways, laying the groundwork for the CWA and a host of other environmental laws.

In more recent years, the CWA has faced systematic attacks from Congressional opponents.  And, as the act enters middle-age, we have not been able eliminate pollution discharges as the CWA’s authors had hoped.  Additionally, while we can regulate point sources, we remain challenged to systematically manage non-point sources and stormwater.  Finally, and for folks here in Georgia, the state agency responsible for implementing CWA requirements has been defunded and complicit in illegal discharges.  A textbook example: King America Finishing’s five-year unpermitted discharge led to Ogeechee River fish kills.  Read about it in the Georgia Water Coalition’s 2012 Dirty Dozen.

Like our predecessors, we continue to understand that as long as unchecked pollution rolls downstream, nobody will be able to drink, fish, and swim…or perhaps go to work.

When I taught sections of US history I concluded my 1970s lecture with recent examples of smog, agricultural run-off and contaminated drinking water in places like China where explosive growth – in residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors – has produced waves of pollution.  Economic and environmental crashes may follow if emerging economies make no attempt – or only offer lip-service – to balance economic development and environmental resources.

Given that uncertainty, the US environmental regulatory ecosystem that extinguished fires on the Cuyahoga begins to look like a wise investment for our own economic and environmental sustainability.

And for that reason I remain hopeful for what the Clean Water Act might still yet accomplish.

-Chris Manganiello

Further reading:

Paul Charles Milazzo, Unlikely Environmentalists: Congress and Clean Water, 1945-1972

and

Karl Boyd Brooks, Before Earth Day: The Origins of Environmental Law, 1945-1970

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. DrinkMoreWater permalink
    December 19, 2012 8:00 pm

    “The CWA therefore focused its firepower on implementing a national program to require technology-based improvements to treatment requirements. Over the 40 years since, these provisions have in my judgment been one of the great success stories of progressive government. While many Rivers are not yet fishable and swimmable (the goal of the CWA), we have made absolutely remarkable progress. I understand, for example, that several species of trout are regularly spotted in the Cuyahoga – and they are alive!
    The bottom line is that even if we were to completely eliminate pollutants from point sources, which would be exorbitantly expensive, the Chesapeake (and other waterways) would still be impaired. We will not achieve desirable water quality in this country unless we match the progressive achievement of the last four decades from point sources with a parallel success story from non point sources.
    The challenge is that measuring, designing and implementing NPS reductions from thousands upon thousands of parcels of developed and agricultural lands is much, much more difficult than monitoring the effluent coming from a relatively small number of specific facilities. This challenge has led USEPA, and state and local regulatory agencies to develop NPS programs that are in essence voluntary. Credit must be given to the significant improvements that have been achieved by developers and farmers within a voluntary system. But the reductions have not been nearly enough.”
    re: http://www.georgehawkins.net/2010/06/this-is-second-of-my-policy-statements.html

    “During the first 15 years of the national program to abate and control water pollution, EPA and the States have focused most of their water pollution control activities on traditional “point sources,” such as discharges through pipes from sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities. These point sources have been regulated by EPA and the States through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program established by section 402 of the Clean Water Act. Discharges of dredged and fill materials into wetlands have also been regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA under section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
    As a result of the above activities, the Nation has greatly reduced pollutant loads from point source discharges and has made considerable progress in restoring and maintaining water quality. However, the gains in controlling point sources have not solved all of the Nation’s water quality problems. Recent studies and surveys by EPA and by State water quality agencies indicate that the majority of the remaining water quality impairments in our nation’s rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters, and wetlands result from nonpoint source pollution and other nontraditional sources, such as urban storm water discharges and combined sewer overflows.”
    re: http://www.epa.gov/owow/NPS/MMGI/Chapter1/ch1-1.html

  2. DrinkMoreWater permalink
    December 19, 2012 8:03 pm

    “During the first 15 years of the national program to abate and control water pollution, EPA and the States have focused most of their water pollution control activities on traditional “point sources,” such as discharges through pipes from sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities. These point sources have been regulated by EPA and the States through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program established by section 402 of the Clean Water Act. Discharges of dredged and fill materials into wetlands have also been regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA under section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

    As a result of the above activities, the Nation has greatly reduced pollutant loads from point source discharges and has made considerable progress in restoring and maintaining water quality. However, the gains in controlling point sources have not solved all of the Nation’s water quality problems. Recent studies and surveys by EPA and by State water quality agencies indicate that the majority of the remaining water quality impairments in our nation’s rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters, and wetlands result from nonpoint source pollution and other nontraditional sources, such as urban storm water discharges and combined sewer overflows.”
    re: http://www.epa.gov/owow/NPS/MMGI/Chapter1/ch1-1.html

  3. January 2, 2013 7:38 pm

    There seems to be a long history when it comes to CWA and other Acts before it. You also appear to have done a great job covering those areas and expressing this knowledge exceptionally well in writing. By properly cleaning water we can all benefit with a healthier water system, ecosystem and be able once again to drink, fish and swim our waters.

  4. Lila Flamm permalink
    February 18, 2013 3:40 am

    Most people have some idea of what the term water pollution means. The most obvious definition is anything that makes water unsuitable to drink or negatively impacts the marine life that lives in it. In more scientific terms, water pollutants can be put into a few basic categories.One of the categories, or classes of water pollutants are wastes that enter a water source a deplete it of oxygen. Some compounds naturally bond with oxygen and other wastes foster the growth of bacteria that consume oxygen. When bacteria build up in the water they use up the waters oxygen supply and all other animals that rely on the waters oxygen supply die.-

    Our own web site
    <.http://www.healthmedicinelab.com/pimple-on-lip/

Trackbacks

  1. Clean Water Is Not a Luxury | Georgia Water Wire
  2. Rayonier and the Altamaha River | Georgia Water Wire

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