Prior to 1972, America’s waterways were suffering through the environmental dark ages. The images of the burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland garnered national attention, but it wasn’t the only waterway in crisis. The Cuyahoga wasn’t even the only river to catch on fire.
Things began to change for the better when the Clean Water Act passed 49 years ago in 1972. It was a groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind piece of environmental legislation. It set the floor for pollution standards, empowered citizens, and changed the course of America’s waterways.
The law has led to many successes in restoring water quality. Thanks to the Clean Water Act and engaged citizens’ groups, the Willamette River, Hudson River, Lake Erie and many other water bodies across the country — while still facing great challenges — have all seen dramatic turnarounds. The Clean Water Act has given many of our lakes and rivers a chance to recuperate. But the recovery is not yet complete and gains are tenuous. Loopholes and emerging contaminants pose an ongoing risk. However, the greatest threat to our water is government inaction.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, it’s time for our government to do more to protect our right to drinkable, fishable, swimmable water. A great first step would be to fully — and finally — enforce the law it passed nearly a half century ago. If we are going to have clean water for the next 50 years and beyond, we need the government to lead.
That’s because despite the Clean Water Act’s successes, our waterways are still facing very real problems. There are algae blooms in the Great Lakes, petrochemical runoff in Louisiana, cesspools of hog waste in the Carolinas, and plastic pollution just about everywhere in the country. Roughly half of all the waterways in the country are impaired. Millions of Americans are at risk from unsafe drinking water due to emerging contaminants, and, as a consequence, may suffer related health risks.
Although threats to clean water persist nationwide, the damage is predominantly felt in minority communities. Decades of disinvestment, segregation and discrimination have led to disproportionally unsafe drinking water in minority communities. In this way, enforcing the Clean Water Act more aggressively — combined with a larger investment in water infrastructure — could not only help improve health outcomes, but it could also help remediate decades of environmental injustice.
And despite the cries from polluters, strong environmental regulations are not bad for the economy. On the contrary, they typically save taxpayer money. That’s because clean water is essential for a strong economy. Agriculture, fisheries, restaurants, recreational businesses, breweries and many other industries depend on abundant sources of clean water.
What’s more, cleaning up pollution and providing clean water is not cheap. It’s certainly much easier and less expensive to prevent water pollution than it is to remove it. The work to clean up pollution can take decades and hundreds of millions of dollars, and that does not include the health costs, environmental loss, and other damages associated with impaired water. When pollution occurs, we all pay for it.
It is far past time to fully implement the Clean Water Act and apply it to all waterways in the United States. EPA needs to implement clearer definitions, stronger pollution standards, meaningful deadlines and prioritized enforcement. The law must also address non-point source pollution. Issues like water scarcity, dams, diversions and more must be addressed to protect against marginalized and frontline communities.
Moreover, the law needs to adapt to the realities of climate change. As we approach the UN climate change conference COP26 in November there’s no better way to show the world we are serious about a sustainable environment than by rigorously protecting our own country’s water.
There are so many great organizations and tireless advocates out there fighting for clean water. Imagine what could be done with fully engaged legislative and executive branches. The Biden administration’s commitment to funding infrastructure could go a long way toward realizing the intent of the Clean Water Act. But we need the government to go further and join us in this fight to ensure clean water for everyone, and not turn a blind eye while our rights to clean water are infringed upon by polluters.
This is no time to take a victory lap. Much more needs to be done to protect American waterways for the next 50 years and beyond. We cannot go back to the era of burning rivers and dying ecosystems.
In the coming year, there will be a lot of tributes to the Clean Water Act. But the best way to honor the law would be to enforce it.
Marc Yaggi is the executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance.