The Clean Water Act: 40 Years of Progress in Peril
It is not difficult to hear the voice of a healthy waterway — if you are in the habit of listening. A sun-drenched early morning elicits a symphony of sounds from a pristine trout stream. A sudden splash reveals a startled muskrat. The quiet slap of an oar gives away a fisherman as he settles on a spot to drop his line and meditate. Heard on a regular basis, these voices become an essential part of the human experience. And when they disappear, the ensuing silence can be deafening.
Forty years ago, our waterways were deafeningly silent. So the nation’s leaders suspended partisan politics — and overrode a presidential veto — to legislate one of the most innovative and forward-thinking federal policies. In 1972, Congress enacted amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act that are collectively known as the Clean Water Act.
The primary goal of the Clean Water Act is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our nation’s waters.” Considered one of the most important environmental laws in the United States, the Clean Water Act embodies the philosophy that major environmental problems can best be solved with a strong federal-state partnership in which the federal government sets standards and states assume responsibility for implementing and enforcing those standards. It also underscores a long-held American belief that clean water and air and healthy wildlife populations are part of our national heritage.
By setting enforceable water quality standards, establishing a system to regulate pollution, and funding sewage treatment infrastructure, this remarkable piece of legislation has arguably been the single most important factor in the restoration and recovery of thousands of miles of waterways across the nation. Lakes once considered all but lifeless now support thriving fish and waterfowl populations. Streams and rivers that once functioned primarily as conduits for sewage now attract hordes of recreational swimmers and anglers.
Yet despite 40 years of progress, state legislatures and the U.S. Congress are facing increasing pressure from special interests to weaken and even eliminate protections that have proved so critical to safeguarding the health of our nation’s waterways. And the public outcry that once spurred action is largely missing today.