Clean Water Act Under Attack: Why We Need To Expand And Protect This Landmark Legislation

Cuyahoga River, Before and After: Protect the Clean Water Act. Contact your congress people at

The Cuyahoga River then and now.
Photo from The Plain Dealer’s archives.
2010’s: Photo from Destination 360.
Photo Meme created by Elisabeth Parker for Addicting Info.

While frantically scrambling to ensure President Barack Obama’s re-election and continued control of the US Senate, progressive activists can be forgiven for missing an important milestone this fall: October, 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act of 1972. Before this landmark legislation was passed — with broad support from both Democrats and Republicans — two thirds of our rivers, lakes, harbors, and other waterways were unsafe for drinking, fishing, or swimming due to contamination by untreated municipal and industrial waste. In 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so clogged with flammable, toxic sludge in that it famously burst into flames, and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, followed by the Clean Water Act two years later.

1969 Cuyahoga River Fire

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, OH when — according to Ohio History Central — “floating pieces of oil slicked debris were ignited on the river by sparks caused by a passing train.” Photo from Ohio History Central.

In Michael Scott’s 2009 article about the Cuyahoga fire for The Plain Dealer, he wrote, “Today, the river fire stands as an enduring image of progress gone wrong.” In his interview with former Plain Dealer reporter Richard Ellers — who was photographed while withdrawing a black slime-covered hand from the river (shown above) — Ellers recalled:

“Back in the ’60s … I went on a news excursion on the river downtown to show how bad the pollution was. I remember we could see a layer of crud on the water but didn’t appreciate its thickness until the photog[rapher] on the trip, Marv Greene, said, ‘Richard, dip your hand in there and pull it out.’ “

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In a nut-shell, the Clean Water Act mandates the following:

  • Establishing water quality standards and ‘designated uses’ for measuring progress (in terms of being able to swim in — and eventually drink — the water);
  • Prohibiting dumping of raw sewage and chemicals  via “point sources” (pipes, trenches, and other conduits); by requiring permits contingent on waste treatment measures);
  • Applying the new rules to all  “navigable waters” (which are connected to other water systems) and water bodies with “significant nexus” (larger bodies of water whose health affects many human and biological communities, even if they are self-contained, and not “navigable”); and
  • Providing financing and grants for construction and upgrading of municipal waste treatment plants.

Fast forward 40 years later: When’s the last time you saw a river catch on fire?  Most of us have access to clean drinking water, and can swim in our local waters (though we still often cannot drink where we swim). We rarely see pipes, tankers, and other facilities projectile vomiting filth into our waters — and when they do, headlines are made, we are shocked and outraged, and the polluters face dire consequences (see AI‘s  B.P. Banned From New Federal Contracts In The U.S. by my colleague Justin Lee Acuff)

Drink up! For younger readers, the daily spectacle of toxic waste (left) and raw sewage (right) being piped into our waterways seems almost as improbable as the idea of Democrats and Republicans working together to enact environmental protections — as they did in 1972 for the historic Clean Water Act. Yet these things really did happen, back in the ‘good old days.’

According to the EPA’s 40 Years of Achievements  document written in 2010 for its 40-year anniversary (40-year anniversaries seem to be the thing these days), we can all thank the Clean Water Act for the following:

  • Less untreated sewage: Compared to 1968, 60 percent more Americans are served by publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants (as of 2008).
  • Cleaner waterways: An EPA study of lakes from 1970 to 2007 shows that water quality has improved. 50 percent of lakes decreased their “nutrient concentrations” (green algae slime), and 25 percent improved their “trophic status” (enviro-speak for being well-nourished enough to support plants, fish, birds, animals, and other life forms).
  • More drinkable water: 92 percent of Americans are now supplied with drinking water that meets health standards — up from 79 percent in 1993.
  • Lower water bills: Programs, including WaterSense-labeled products, have helped American consumers save more than $55 million in water and sewer bills as of 2008.

Unmentioned by the EPA are the valuable — but not easily quantifiable — aesthetic, social, community, and recreational benefits of clean waterways. Over the past two decades, rivers and waterfronts in towns and cities across the country have become attractive destinations, surrounded by parks, shops, eateries, entertainment, and other recreational opportunities. The Cuyahoga River is now “the focus of all types of outdoor recreation, from fishing to white water rafting to hiking the trails around the banks,” according to In Cleveland, OH — where the river meets Lake Erie (which was also once hideously polluted) — warehouses, piles of junk, and industrial lots have given way to waterfront parks, marinas, cruise boats, trendy restaurants, chic shops, and family attractions.

Circle of Blue‘s Brett Walton tells a similar tale focused on the Connecticut River — recently embraced by gritty Hartford Connecticut — in the first of his four-part series, Clean Water Act Turns 40 (Part I): Cities Fall In Love With Rivers Again:

“Metropolitan hubs that long ago turned their backs to the water are now facing their shorelines and have remade themselves, thanks to the benefits of healthy rivers and lakes. Hartford’s waterfront — like those in Boston, Charleston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Louisville, New York, Pittsburgh, and dozens of others — now pulses with new businesses, new offices, new housing, and throngs of people.”

Hartford, CT river-front.

The banks of the Connecticut River in Hartford, CT are central to a revitalized city. Photo courtesy of Riverfront Recapture via Circle of Blue.

In an engaging article about the Clean Water Act’s 40-year anniversary, Slate’s James Salzman adds:

“By many measures, the Clean Water Act has fulfilled the ambition of its drafters. The sewage discharges that were commonplace in the 1960s are rare. The number of waters meeting quality goals has roughly doubled. Once a convenient dumping ground for all manner of filth, rivers now represent an urban gem. Hartford, Conn.; Kansas City, Kan.; Cleveland; and other cities have based much of their redevelopment around their now clean and inviting waters, with waterfront parks and the lure of fishing and trails along the water’s edge.”

SO … if the Clean Water Act’s so great, what’s the problem? Actually, we’ve got SEVERAL problems that we urgently need to address:

  1.  Limited Scope: To ensure broad support, 1972’s pollution prohibitions only apply to “point sources” (pipes, trenches, and other direct conduits), not urban, agricultural, and storm-water run-off — also known as “non-point source pollution” in EPA-speak. The definitions for whether a body of water is “navigable” (connected to other bodies of water) or a “significant nexus” (large enough to impact an ecological or human community), as specified by the language of the Clean Water Act, can also prove legally slippery — as many law firms representing developers, agribusiness, and other interests know well, and have often exploited to their benefit. What does “navigable” mean? That you can draw it on a map? Or tool around it on a Jet Ski? And don’t even get me started with “significant nexus.” Every day, fertilizers, prescription drugs, motor oil, cleaning products and other pollutants seep into our groundwater and drift into our water sources through wind, rain, erosion, gutters, storm drains, and faulty septic systems. When disasters like Hurricane Sandy hit, heaven knows what gets washed into our rivers, lakes, oceans, and streams. In 2000, the EPA added new rules requiring states to identify polluted water bodies; calculate how much pollution they can absorb — a measurement called the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL); require TDML reductions from businesses and landowners; and to account for TDML levels in all future planning and development projects. Naturally, these rules have ticked off a lot of people, including developers, farmers, and rural old-timers on fixed incomes who can’t afford the required upgrades for their septic systems.
  1. Non-point source pollution: According to the EPA’s Outreach and Communications website, Non-point source pollution accounts for the “approximately 40 percent of our surveyed rivers, lakes, and estuaries” that still are not clean enough for swimming, fishing, or drinking. Craig Cox from The Environmental Working Group — a non-profit team of scientists, engineers and other experts — baldly states that the Clean Water Act “succeeded in cutting pollution from cities and industries, but 80,000 miles of rivers and streams in the U.S. remain badly polluted by chemical fertilizers and manure. Iowa is a case study of the consequences of the most serious flaw in the Clean Water Act, that it does little or nothing to address farm pollution.” In a detailed, thorough report that analyzes 12 years worth of water quality data, Cox and his colleague Andrew Hug predict looming environmental disaster. Furthermore, Salzman’s aforementioned piece in Slate adds that “Recent studies have identified more than 50 pharmaceuticals or their by-products in the drinking water of major metropolitan areas … [and] The U.S. Geological Survey found 82 contaminants, most of them personal-care products and drugs, in 80 percent of the streams sampled in 30 states.” The relatively new process of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has also raised concerns, due to the large amounts of methane and something Salzman mysteriously refers to as “fracking fluids” (like, EWW) that could “rise to the surface.” On top of all this bad news, the water quality for the Mississippi Delta and Florida’s Everglades — networks of estuaries and wetlands through which our rivers drain into the ocean — grows worse by the day while contaminants kill increasing numbers of plants, fish, and other marine life.
  1. Evil Supreme Court decisions: The same Supreme Court that handed the presidency to George W. Bush in 2004 — even though he lost the general election — has also dramatically undermined the Clean Water Act with two decisions that — according to the National Wildlife Federation, “ignored congressional intent and narrowly interpreted the scope of waters covered by the Act, putting in doubt pollution safeguards for many vital wetlands, lakes and streams.”For The Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (SWANCC), the Supreme Court narrowly ruled in their five-to-four 2001 decision that the Army Corps of Engineers must allow proposed development to go forward. Their rationale: The disputed body of water — a network of abandoned gravel pits and trenches which had evolved into a habitat for various flora and fauna, including migratory birds — was sufficiently “isolated” (i.e. not “navigable”); the at-risk migratory birds were insufficient for qualifying the disputed body of water as a “significant nexus;” and therefore, the land can be developed with no further considerations for the environment. In 2006, a newly-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts and his Associate Justice Samuel Alito heard Rapanos v. United States, in which Midland, Michigan developer John A. Rapanos challenged authorities for shutting down his project due to Clean Water Act violations. But of course, Rapanos insisted that he wasn’t building on wetlands — despite the fact that he felt the need to busily fill his not-wetlands with tons of sand — and Bush II’s court backed him up, because the wetlands (however wet they may actually be) don’t really count as “navigable,” because they aren’t connected to anything else. And, as you recall, non-navigable bodies of water do not fall under the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction unless they constitute a “significant nexus” — which, as far as I can tell, means it’s kind of like the tree that makes no sound because nobody can hear it fall: If not enough people complain, and not enough winsome creatures go all Dreamworks and march on Washington, then the body of water in question is an “insignificant nexus” and doesn’t count.
  1. The @#$% Fiscal Cliff: Oh yeah … I forgot … even if we COULD achieve consensus amongst our legislators about the importance of strengthening the Clean Water act, we’d never be able to get our divided congress to fund any of the new provisions. In fact, we might not even wind up with enough money to research, oversee, and implement the current requirements.

Now, I feel as sad as the aging Native American who shed a dignified tear in the celebrated “Keep America Beautiful” advertisement I recall from my childhood. You can see the video here:

If you want to help support the Clean Water Act, and hope not to return to the days when rivers caught on fire and capsizing your boat required a trip to the doctor and a course of antibiotics and anti-rash ointments, here are some links to resources:


Elisabeth Parker is a writer, Web designer, mom, political junkie, and dilettante. Come visit her at ElisabethParker.Com, friend her on facebook, or follow her on Twitter.