On Its 40th Birthday, the Clean Water Act Needs More Love

Nation’s leaders must renew commitment to clean water, strengthen clean water protections, defend basic right to clean water


Liz Judge, Earthjustice, (202) 797-5237

The following statement is from Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act:

“Today we celebrate 40 years of one of our nation’s effective and protective laws, the Clean Water Act. The landmark Clean Water Act is the sole reason Americans can drink from, swim, paddle, and fish in many of our waters today.

Water is life, and the health and future of our nation depend on it being protected.  (iStockphoto)

“Forty years ago, when Congress passed this law with overwhelming bipartisan support, our waters were treated as vast waste dumps and repositories for industrial filth and sewage. Rivers were burning, lakes were declared dead, beaches were closed, and children and families were warned not to swim in the waters.

“For decades, with the Clean Water Act as our protector, we made great progress in cleaning up our communities’ waters. But many of our elected leaders have spent the last ten years taking swipes at this law, weakening it, gutting it, and ignoring it.

“Today, we risk returning to those unhealthy days of dirty water. Many of our waters that were safeguarded for decades under the law are being denied protections today, and our communities are dealing with outbreaks of toxic algae slime, extreme dumping of mining waste, mismanaged sewage systems, and many other problems amid a changing climate, severe droughts, and water shortages.

“The Clean Water Act can protect us and reverse the harm—but it needs to be upheld and enforced, and updated for today’s challenges. It is time for our nation’s leaders to renew the same bipartisan commitment to clean water and healthy, prosperous communities that gave way to this law in first place. Water is life, and the health and future of our nation depend on it being protected.”

Background on the Clean Water Act:

  • The Clean Water Act was passed by a two-thirds majority of Congress, with strong bipartisan support. It was enacted on October 18, 1972, with two simple and overarching goals: to make all waters of the United States safe for swimming, fishing, and drinking by 1983, and also to end the use of our nation’s waters for discharge of pollution by 1985. Due to lax enforcement and a host of loopholes and exemptions, we have missed both of those goals by a longshot.
  • According to EPA’s most recent report to Congress, 44% of assessed streams are impaired (246,000 miles), meaning they are not clean enough to support at least one of their designated uses, such as fishing, swimming, and supporting aquatic habitat. This estimate does not provide a complete picture, because the vast majority of streams and rivers in the U.S. have not yet been assessed.
  • Over the last two years, the 112th Congress has taken an estimated three dozen votes to weaken or block Clean Water Act protections.
  • Today, many of our crucial waters are being denied the Clean Water Act’s protections against pollution. Approximately 20 million wetlands and half of our streams and creeks have lost protections under the Clean Water Act, leaving communities and families near them vulnerable to the effects of toxic and unbridled industrial dumping and pollution. These at-risk waters provide drinking water for more than 117 million Americans and 5,646 public water supply systems.

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