50 years after Clean Water Act, we are delivering on a new clean water agenda
We are taught in the early years of school and life that fire and water do not mix. So, when the Cuyahoga River famously caught fire in 1969, it was a simple visual trigger that something was very wrong. Ironically, the fire did not gain much local or national attention in the days that followed, nor was it the largest blaze that had burned on the river. But the fire grew to be a symbol of the impact of industrial pollution and a rallying cry for the growing environmental movement. The popular activism it spurred helped lead to the passage of the Clean Water Act in October 1972.
One of the seminal environmental laws of that era — alongside the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and foundational laws to protect clean air, drinking water and endangered wildlife — the Clean Water Act changed the way Americans interact with their water. The law established the basic structure for regulating pollution into waterways and helped local communities build water treatment infrastructure. Before it was signed into law, both companies and local governments commonly dumped chemicals, waste and raw sewage into America’s rivers. Because of the act and EPA’s enforcement of it, wildlife returned to rivers previously so polluted that they were devoid of fish, waters have become swimmable again, and decreasing pollution has directly and positively impacted Americans’ health. For example, one study found that Clean Water Act grants improved infant birth weights for families downstream.
Now, 50 years later, we can be proud of these results, but we cannot rest on our laurels. Access to clean and safe water is a fundamental right, yet today, the Clean Water Act faces renewed legal challenges, and communities across our country face new water crises. Too often, it’s easy to ignore crumbling infrastructure until it reaches a point of shocking collapse — we need to look no further than Flint or Jackson in recent years. But that doesn’t even capture the breadth and depth of the challenge, from big cities to rural communities. In many cases, communities left behind by the environmental laws of the 1970s remain behind today. I recently visited Lowndes County, Alabama, where residents left with no septic or sewer system use “straight pipes” to dump raw sewage into backyards. These crises are unacceptable in the largest and most advanced economy on the planet.
So, 50 years after the Clean Water Act, the country needed a new water agenda. That’s why President Biden has directed our administration to make sure we see these communities — and deliver clean water and sanitary sewage systems all across America. The unprecedented resources we have now, including $55 billion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the bipartisan infrastructure law) and other major legislation, are not just about rebuilding crumbling infrastructure or returning to the baseline after decades of underinvestment. Rather, these laws are an opportunity to change how the country manages our water infrastructure, resetting the status quo from responding to crises to preventing crises before they happen. It is the largest investment in drinking water, sewer systems and addressing water pollution in American history. And beyond drinking water systems there is $1 billion to clean up Great Lakes tributaries like the Cuyahoga River and billions more for cleaning up other polluted bodies of water.
The scale of these resources may finally break the cycle where financial constraints make it challenging to prioritize adequate maintenance and improvements, resulting in costlier infrastructure failures down the road.
Learning from the mistakes of the past, states must also now use nearly half of the new drinking water and clean water funding for grants or forgivable loans to disadvantaged communities, dramatically expanding the availability of low-cost funding to communities that often struggle to repay a traditional infrastructure loan. And for the first time ever, the law provides dedicated federal funding to replace lead pipes and to address new pollutants like PFAS. More challenges lie ahead. The increasing toll of climate change is placing new demands on water sources and infrastructure, ranging from a record-breaking dry spell covering 40 percent of the continental United States and straining water availability in the West to extreme floods that have increased in frequency and intensity.
When the president asked me to lead the implementation of these historic investments, he gave one direction: Build a better America. Our administration stands ready to help every state in the nation maximize the impact of these funds, get them to communities that need them the most, and ultimately to realize a new 21st-century vision for America’s water, delivering on the commitment the country made with the Clean Water Act 50 years ago today.
Mitch Landrieu is senior advisor to the president and White House infrastructure coordinator.
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