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40 Years Ago Clean Water Act Transformed How America Views Water, Time to Do it Again

Peter Lehner

Posted October 18, 2012

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Click here to take actionI love to swim, and when you spend a lot of time in the water, you get a good sense of how America is treating its rivers, lakes, and oceans. Decades ago, I used to swim past factories and refineries dumping polluted waste right into Boston Harbor, and I dodged sewage and oily runoff in New York’s Hudson River. I saw similar contamination when I traveled and went swimming in local waters from the Gulf of Mexico to California’s beaches. Today, our waters are far cleaner. Industry has to follow strict guidelines for discharges and cities have cut down on sewage overflows. The last time I went swimming in the Hudson, the river felt fresh and bracing.

These changes did not occur by accident. They were driven by the Clean Water Act. They happened because forty years ago today, Congress passed this law and sparked a transformation in the way America views water.

We used to treat water bodies like big wet trashcans—easy places for factories to dump their industrial waste and for cities to unload their sewage. The Clean Water Act declared that nobody had the right to use our shared water resources as their private dumpster. It prohibited pollutant discharges into the nation’s waters unless you had a permit and met baseline standards.


Swimmers in Boston Harbor, Photo Credit: EPA

We still have a lot of work to do, but there is no doubt that our water is safer to fish from and cleaner to swim in than it was when Congress passed this law. Yet even as we continue to make progress, it is time for another transformative change.

Four decades ago, the Clean Water Act taught us that waterways don’t have to be dumping grounds. Today, it is showing us that waterways managed as part of larger natural systems deliver more benefits to more Americans.

Take the issue of stormwater. In most cities, rainwater falls on paved surfaces, picks up oil, chemicals, and raw sewage, and dumps it into our waterways. This stormwater runoff is now the largest source of water pollution in many parts of the nation and a leading cause of beach closures. Water managers are realizing that if we design our communities to act more like natural systems, we can capture rain where it falls. A 1-inch rainstorm falling on a 1-acre meadow, for instance, would typically produce enough runoff to fill 28 bathtubs. The same storm falling on a 1-acre paved parking lot would produce 448 bathtubs of runoff—approximately 16 times as much.

We don’t want to turn our built environment into grassy meadows, but we can create a similar effect throughout our communities. A solution called green infrastructure—things like permeable pavement, grassy traffic medians, pocket parks, and green roofs—has been proven to reduce runoff. It is also often much cheaper than conventional cement storm drains. When Staten Island tackled stormwater using green infrastructure, it saved the city $80 million, increased nearby property values, and brought much needed green space to urban neighborhoods.

Our communities also benefit when we manage headwater streams and isolated wetlands as part of a larger natural system. What happens to headwater streams, after all, affects downstream waters. And what happens to wetlands affects nearby streams. Near my family’s home in upstate New York, I walk past tiny brooks and small wetlands that nourish the streams that replenish our drinking water and feed the lake I love to swim in with my daughters. They are all connected, and if we do damage to one, we threaten the whole. Yet two court rulings and Bush administration guidelines now threaten protections for headwater streams and isolated wetlands, ignoring the scientific reality that this has consequences for entire watersheds.

In the coming months, we have two good opportunities to put this natural systems approach in place. The Environmental Protection Agency is poised to update standards for dealing with stormwater under the Clean Water Act, and the agency should use those standards to promote green infrastructure. The EPA must also adopt guidelines and permanent regulations to restore protections to headwater streams and isolated wetlands consistent with science and the law.

The Clean Water Act gives the agency the authority to make these improvements. Yet GOP lawmakers in the House are trying to gut the law and prevent further progress. Back in 1972, lawmakers recognized that cleaning our waterways was not a partisan issue, but a joint American undertaking that would benefit all of us. They passed the Clean Water Act with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses.

It is time to recapture that sense of common purpose and spark the next transformation that will make America’s water safer and cleaner for all of us.

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JackieOct 18 2012 06:15 PM

I agee. Let's get this story in the media. This is something positive the gov does that benefits many people and can reduce health care costs.
neduce heLth

Jim Bullis, Miastrada CompanyOct 19 2012 03:58 PM

Your mention of storm run-off from a parking lot versus that from a meadow leads to a large scale concept.

The water that runs down rivers into the ocean is large scale run-off that should be used in irrigating the vast areas of under-used land on the North American continent, and other continents as well.

A big solution might be to create infrastructure that would enable universal irrigation which would accomplish this purpose and significantly minimize effects of flood and drought.

Imagine the vast job creating benefits as well as expansion of world food supplies. The impact on the American economy would be profound.

Peter MaierOct 23 2012 01:16 AM

If water quality improved, it was not because of the CWA, since EPA only requires 35% of the pollution in sewage to be treated. Fortunately most sewage treatment plants do treat sewage much better. All this, because of a faulty applied pollution test EPA used to implemented the Act and ignored 60% of the pollution in sewage Congress intended to treat. Among the waste ignored is all the nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste, while this waste besides exerting an oxygen demand, also is a fertilizer for algae, thus contributes to the dead zones now experienced in nearly all open waters. In a recent Investigate West article ( an EPA spokeswoman states that urine is only a concern when effluents are discharged in ‘ammonia’ sensitive waters. She clearly does not realize that nitrogenous waste in sewage represents about 40% of the total oxygen demand and that one pound of nitrogen can create 20 pounds of alga, that when it dies again will exert an oxygen demand. It is obvious that when nitrogenous waste is not treated, one might as well discharge the sewage directly and save a lot of money. However if we really want to clean up our open waters we should first correct this essential test, so we finally will know how sewage is treated and apply those treatment technologies EPA already in 1978 was aware of, that not only provide much better treatment, including nitrogenous waste, but can be build and operated at much lower cost.

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