The Clean Water Act at 50

BEFORE THE 1972 CLEAN WATER ACT, our nation’s waters were severely contaminated by sewage, trash, oil, and toxic industrial pollution. Large and small waters across the county were unsafe for human contact, water supplies, or fish consumption.

An estimated two-thirds of lakes, rivers, and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing and swimming. Only about 40% of Americans were served by sewage treatment plants and untreated sewage was dumped directly into rivers and lakes.

When it passed on October 18th of 1972, the Clean Water Act represented a bold vision for a future where all of the country’s interconnected waterways were healthy and protected.

This revolutionary federal law—implemented through state and local governments—sets pollution limits on what companies could dump into our waterways and allows for penalties when they violated the law and endangered public health. The Clean Water Act also allows for community members to enforce the law, where the government has failed to do so, and hold polluters accountable. The passage of the Clean Water Act also sets precedents for making waterways clean for public enjoyment and provides safe drinking water to all Americans. This powerful law still gives us the tools to address today’s environmental challenges.

The Clean Water Act 50th Anniversary Campaign is a way for our members and neighbors to celebrate our successes and strengthen our movement to take our public waterways back from polluters.

“Today the rivers of this country serve as little more than sewers to the seas. Wastes from cities and towns, from
farms and forests, from mining and manufacturing, foul the streams, poison the estuaries, threaten the life of the ocean depths.”

SENATOR EDWIN MUSKIE UPON INTRODUCTION OF THE CWA IN 1971

What the CWA Has Accomplished

Among other things, this legislation created:

Water Quality Based Pollution Standards: Requires permits to include pollution controls, limits, and monitoring that protect public health and water quality needed for drinking water, fisheries, swimming, wildlife, shellfish, farming, and other uses.

Water Quality Assessment and Restoration: EPA, states, and tribes are required to assess water quality and take action to restore polluted waters

Citizen Rights and Enforcement: The law provides citizens with robust rights to information and participation in water quality decision-making and permitting, including the right to enforce the Clean Water Act in federal court when governments or polluters violate the law.

Supportive Resources, Funding, and Programs: Includes many programs to protect and restore watersheds through public-private partnerships, infrastructure supports, grant programs, and scientific, technical, and
educational resources.

And it’s produced results!

● Each year, national technology-forcing standards eliminate 700 billion tons of toxic pollution from 40,000 facilities that discharge directly to water, 129,000 facilities that discharge to municipal wastewater treatment
systems, and discharges from certain construction sites.

● It is no longer common to dump untreated sewage directly into water. As of 2012, 234 million people (74% of the U.S. population) were being served by secondary treatment or better wastewater treatment systems subject to Clean Water Act pollution limits.

● A nationwide review of 50 million water quality measurements by researchers at UC Berkeley and Iowa State University found that the Clean Water Act has “driven significant improvements in U.S. water quality” and that most of 25 water pollution measures showed improvement, including an increase in dissolved oxygen concentrations and a decrease in fecal coliform bacteria. The share of rivers safe for fishing increased by 12% between 1972 and 2001.”

Our CWA50 Priorities

We’re at an environmental tipping point. For too long, polluters have been unaccountable for the toxic substances and waste in our water, and clean water laws are being rolled back, or even eliminated, to serve these powerful corporate interests. We’re also seeing clear impacts of climate change on our waterways and injustice in our communities. But it’s not too late to act.

We have the tools and the agency, but we need to take collective action. 2022 marks a monumental year to celebrate the power and promise of this revolutionary law to protect our waterways, while also empowering communities to demand equal justice and access to clean water.

Ensure environmental justice and public empowerment. Working waterfronts, farmers, poor communities, and people of color are unjustly burdened by pollution. We must create better accountability, systems, and transparency for meaningful environmental justice review (especially in the permitting process) and enhance access to nature for all.

Plan for climate impacts to waterways. To better prepare for the challenges of a changing climate, we must use the most up-to-date scientific data and models, invest in green stormwater management, and protect resources, such as wetlands and streams that are essential for mitigating storm impacts.

Demand corporate accountability for toxics and waste in water. With industry’s history of greed and inequality, the CWA must require corporations to be liable for the pollution they create and regulate emerging contaminants in their products.

Promote strong enforcement of environmental laws. Communities should hold more power to enforce the law and protect residents. States must enhance citizen enforcement efforts in state law, increase budgets for inspection and enforcement personnel, and demand more serious repercussions for violators.

Invest in healthy waterways, ecosystems, and sustainable local economies. The CWA and state agencies must be fully funded to protect species, promote sustainability initiatives in local economies, and improve recreational access to waterways and green spaces. Equity must be centered in all funding programs.