Clean Water Act established (1972)

The Clean Water Act became law on October 18, 1972, establishing for the first time an aggressive, comprehensive approach to federal water pollution control.  Amended several times since then, the Clean Water Act (CWA) remains one of the most important environmental laws in the United States.

Water pollution, like other environmental insults, had become an increasingly vexing problem in the post-WW2 era.  Traditionally, discharging wastes into streams, lakes and rivers was considered a common right, as long as the discharge did not harm others downstream or farther along the shore.  With more people dumping more pollution—domestic sewage and industrial wastes—however, a different strategy was required.  The first federal law to control water pollution was passed in 1948, but its aims were low and narrow.  By the early 1970s, however, as former EPA Director Carol Browner said, “…the American people said ‘enough.’”  Events like the burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in 1969 had convinced the country that something more needed to be done.

The Clean Water Act of 1972, therefore, was different.  The fundamental goal of the law was to make all “navigable waterways safe for fishing, swimming and supplying drinking water by 1983.” The law basically removed the right to pollute, replacing it with a set of standards that relied on scientific and technical standards.  The act made it against the law to discharge any pollutants into navigable waters without a permit issued by the federal government.  Those permits set maximum pollutant concentrations for waste treatment plants and for all other types of discharges into surface waters.

The act was passed by overwhelming majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate, but President Nixon did not like it.  Along with regulating water pollution, the act also appropriated billions of dollars to help local municipalities build water treatment plants.  Nixon thought this was a budget-breaker, and he vetoed the bill.  Both houses of Congress overrode his veto, however, and the bill became law.

The Clean Water Act is perhaps the most successful environmental law of all time.  The proportion of our waters—lakes, streams and rivers, and estuaries—that support their officially designated highest use continues to grow.  Rivers that once ran through cities supporting no aquatic life and oozing with organic and inorganic waste are now the centerpieces of revived downtown neighborhoods.  Estuaries that lacked any oxygen are once again productive nurseries for fish and shellfish.

Control of water pollution, however, is not without debate and conflict.  Issues relating to the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act impact how much of the nation’s waters are protected.  And comprehensive data about the state of our water resources is hard to find.  Data on this topic appear to have been removed from the EPA website; the latest data summaries are for 2004.

References:

Browner, Carol M.  1997.  25th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 17, 1997.  USEPA.  Available at:  https://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/a162fa4bfc0fd2ef8525701a004f20d7/872d86a1679743df8525701a0052e3a5!OpenDocument&Highlight=0.  Accessed October 17, 2017.

Hines, N. William.  2013.  History of the 1972 Clean Water Act:  The Story Behind How the 1972 Act Became the Capstone on a Decade of Extraordinary Environmental Reform.  Journal of Energy & Environmental Law, Summer 2013:80-106.  Available at:  https://gwujeel.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/4-2-hines.pdf.  Accessed October 17, 2017.

USEPA.  Summary of the Clean Water Act.  Available at:  https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-water-act.  Accessed October 17, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

August 1
Hawaii National Park Created (1916)
August 2
White Giraffes Found in Kenya (2017)
August 3
Arbor Day in Niger
August 4
Liang Congjie, Pioneering Chinese Environmentalist, born (1932)
August 5
First Traffic Light Installed in U.S. (1914)
August 6
Rajendra Singh, the Waterman of India, Born (1959)
August 7
World’s Oldest Tree Cut Down, Accidentally (1964)
August 7
Elinor Ostrom, Noble Laureate in Economics, Born (1933)
August 8
Banqiao Dam Collapse, World’s Biggest Dam Disaster (1975)
August 9
Smokey Bear Born (1944)
August 10
John Kirk Townsend, Pioneering Naturalist, Born (1809)
August 11
Gifford Pinchot, Father of American Forestry, Born (1865)
August 12
“The Lorax” Published (1971)
August 13
Roald Amundsen Completes Northwest Passage (1905-1906)
August 14
Hetch Hetchy Began Producing Power (1925)
August 15
Sponge Act passed (1914)
August 16
E. F. Schumacher, Environmental Economist, born (1911)
August 17
Cape Hatteras National Seashore created (1937)
August 18
Margaret Murie born (1902)
August 19
Cickamauga and Chattanooga Battlefield established
August 20
The Great Fire (1910)
August 20
Rajendra Pachauri, Nobel Peace Laureate in Climate Change Research, Born (1940)
August 21
“Bambi” Released (1942)
August 22
Loch Ness Monster first seen (565)
August 23
Chile’s Atacama Desert Blooms (2017)
August 24
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine, Established (2016)
August 25
National Park Service Born (1916)
August 26
Krakatau Volcano Erupted (1883)
August 27
First Oil Well Drilled (1859)
August 28
Roger Tory Peterson, Ornithologist, Born (1908)
August 29
Henry Bergh, Founder of ASPCA, Born (1813)
August 30
International Whale Shark Day
August 30
Lord Walsingham Shot 1,070 Grouse (1888)
August 31
John Muir Home preserved (1964)
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