The Clean Water Act turns 40 today

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In 1972 the Clean Water Act was enacted to regulate the discharge of pollutants into the waters in the United States and established water quality standards. It made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant into navigable waters unless a permit was issued.


With this law and the hard work of local governments and engineers, we’ve kept billions of pounds of sewage, chemicals and trash out of our waters.  Today’s engineers are doing amazing things and we have benefited from new technology. Urban waterways have gone from being wastelands to being the center of redevelopment and activity. The end result — waters are more swimmable, fishable and sources of drinking water are more protected. And that is something we can all be proud of as stewards of the Nation’s infrastructure.

Today, we are so much better off. There is not a single location in this country where you cannot go and get a clean glass of water. But 40 years from now, will we be able to make the same statement? That you can get clean drinking water everywhere in this country?  I don’t know.

We are once again facing a challenge. The United States population is projected to grow 55 percent from 2000 to 2050, which will burden our infrastructure. Population growth, coupled with added development, further strains our system.

Face it. Our water and wastewater system are aging and are overburdened, with many of them built 100 years or more ago. Sadly, we’ve all seen the impact these aging pipes and facilities have on our daily lives. From broken water mains to “boil water” alerts.

A recent economic study by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that the gap between what is being spent on water infrastructure and what is needed to meet the nation’s demands will reach $84 billion by 2020.

Annual investment in water infrastructure is approximately $36.4 billion. In order to meet the needs of our growing population and ensure we continue to have clean drinking water the annual investment must increase to $91 billion. An estimated $9.4 billion per year between now and 2020 would avoid $21 billion per year in costs to households and businesses.

Absent significant funding increases, there are some actions we can all take. If households and businesses adopt sustainability practices such as improved efficiency through process or equipment changes, water reclamation or green infrastructure to address wet weather management, the economic impact could be lessened.

Las Vegas, in the desert, recognizes how valuable water is. They are paying homeowners to tear out their lawns and replace it with natural, desert landscaping, and it is working.

Thankfully, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio will not catch fire again like it did in 1969. But we should remind ourselves of why the Clean Water Act came into being and think about what all of us can do, to keep the spirit of that legislation moving forward.

DiLoreto is president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers.