SPECIAL REPORT: EPA going strong on Clean Water Act after 40 years

A generation ago, the American people faced almost unimaginable health and environmental threats in their waters. Layers of industrial pollution on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire and Lake Erie was declared dead. An oil spill fouled hundreds of square miles of water off the coast of California, while in Washington, D.C., the Potomac was coated with so much sewage the pollution could be smelled in the city on hot days. 

These circumstances prompted Congress to come together and find bipartisan solutions like the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Ocean Dumping Act. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to set and enforce commonsense standards to protect human health and the environment under these laws. That same year, people all across America came together for the very first Earth Day, and the 1970s initiated several extraordinary advances in the protection of the water that millions of Americans use for drinking, swimming, fishing and more.

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Over the last 40 years the American people have expected bipartisan solutions that focus on their health, and not on political outcomes. They are holding us accountable to do the same thing in light of today’s clean water and drinking water challenges.

We have a responsibility to meet the clean water expectations of the American people. A recent Gallup poll on environmental issues showed that at least 75 percent of Americans “worry a great deal or a fair amount” about pollution in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and drinking water and the maintenance of our nation’s fresh water supply for households. 

Behind those numbers are the human stories that demonstrate the value Americans place on clean water. Whether it is the parents who want assurance that the water they give their children is safe, or a cherished family fishing spot that should be preserved, or long-awaited dreams of retiring to a home on a beautiful stretch of clean water, the American dream in no small part includes safe and healthy waters. That is why the EPA is taking reasonable steps, every day, to protect our waters and safeguard the health of people who use them. It is why we need to look beyond politics and see the people behind our work. 

Today’s challenges include pollution that lacks any single source, like the fertilizer and pesticides that run off of suburban lawns and the animal waste that spills from industrial animal feeding operations, or the contaminants that move from urban streets to local waterways when it rains. That runoff pollutes waters in every corner — and nearly every congressional district of our nation — from the Pacific Northwest, where Puget Sound is imperiled by harmful pollution in stormwater runoff, to the coasts of Florida, where nitrogen and phosphorous pollution have threatened children’s health, jeopardized the tourism economy, and cost millions of dollars in property damage, to the jewel of Lake Tahoe, whose clarity is imperiled by runoff from development.


Fortunately, we also have new solutions like green infrastructure. Building homes with green roofs and lining streets with rain gardens and permeable pavement allows communities to filter stormwater without having to expand or rebuild expensive traditional water infrastructure. Green infrastructure is a win-win strategy for reducing environmental and health threats while beautifying local areas in ways that can attract new investments and jobs, and it’s something we should be working on together.

Earth Day presents a moment to celebrate how far we have come, and measure how far we still have to go. We have many clean water challenges ahead: restoring the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay; using cutting-edge science to detect and remove harmful chemicals in drinking water; fostering a new generation of clean water innovations; and maintaining core health protections on stretched budgets, just to name just a few. 

These are daunting tasks, but entirely achievable for the nation that restored the Cuyahoga, brought Lake Erie back to life, cleaned up the Santa Barbara oil spill and revitalized the Potomac. As we continue that history of success, it is critical to remember that our progress has always been a matter of moving past politics, tuning out the special interests and working together to tackle the issues that affect the people we serve.

Jackson is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.


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