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On 40th Anniversary, Clean Water Act Faces Toxic Times

Forty years ago today, against a backdrop of flaming rivers, dying lakes and sewage-choked beaches, our politicians reached across the aisle to pass the Clean Water Act—a law aptly described by the New York Times' Robert Semple as "a critical turning point" in rescuing the nation's waterways from "centuries of industrial, municipal and agricultural pollution." The primary goals of the law were simple and bold: to stop using our nation’s waters as open sewers and end the discharge of water pollution.

This wonderful, landmark law flourished under three decades of bipartisan support, reining in torrents of industrial and municipal discharges, and restoring health to waters great and small across the land.

But some 10 years ago, the clean water tide slowed as polluters gained traction in Congress; and two years ago, with political collaboration at an end, the tide turned. As a result, loopholes and lax enforcement led to the fouling of beaches and rivers with toxic slime, the filling thousands of miles of Appalachian streams with the rubble of mountaintop removal mining; and have allowed dozens of toxic coal ash ponds to exist unregulated among our communities.

The current Congress seems especially eager to prove that pollution means prosperity. Many representatives are joined in an effort to weaken and even wreck the Clean Water Act, particularly by attacking the Environmental Protection Agency's power to enforce it.

To counter this trend, Earthjustice and its allies have been in court and in the halls of Congress, and are working to rally public support across the nation. Our goals are to stop the erosion of the Act, defend the power of the EPA and improve enforcement.

Our top priorities: reverse the Bush administration's policy that excludes many waterways from Act protections; ensure that the EPA proposes and finalizes rulemakings that reduce sewage overflows and pollution from stormwater runoff; pressure the EPA to follow through on its commitments to reduce Florida's toxic algae blooms caused by nutrient pollution, and expand regional and national nutrient numeric limits; and continue working to end the devastation wrought by mountaintop mining.

If we’ve learned anything by this summer’s record-breaking drought, it’s that water is a precious and finite resource that deserves to be treated as such. We cannot continue to sacrifice our country’s clean water for industry’s narrow short-term profit. No matter our political views, we all need clean water to survive.

Bob Semple was dead-on when he wrote that bipartisanship created the Clean Water Act and powered it for much of its remarkable existence; and we mourn with him the loss of that shoulder-to-shoulder ethic. Yet, we remain very optimistic and utterly resolved to defend and restore the potency and promise of the Act—and we have reason to be this way. Over the years, in poll after poll and regardless of which political party was in power, the American public has resoundingly declared its support for the Clean Water Act and what it means in their lives. This is our vote of confidence.