Before the Clean Water Act

In 1969 Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so fouled by industrial pollution that the river caught on fire. Public outcry over dirty rivers spurred Congress to pass the landmark Clean Water Act in 1972. The historic law was designed to protect all of our waters – from the smallest streams to the mightiest rivers – from pollution and destruction.

Thanks to the Clean Water Act, billions of pounds of pollution have been kept out of our rivers and the number of waters that meet clean water goals nationwide has doubled – with direct benefits for drinking water, public health, recreation, and wildlife. The Act represented a huge step forward by requiring states to set clean water standards to protect uses such as swimming, fishing, and drinking, and for the regulation of pollution discharges.

And yet – as we approach the 40th anniversary of this important law, many of our rivers remain polluted by urban and agricultural runoff and sewer overflows, and almost half of our streams are in poor health.

Clean Water Act FAQs

Isn’t There Less Pollution Going Into Our Rivers Now Than Ever Before?

The Clean Water Act has been successful at reducing pollution that enters our rivers and lakes from ‘point sources.’ These are single, identifiable sources of pollution like wastewater treatment plants and factories. However, ‘nonpoint source’ pollution is still a significant problem for clean water. This type of pollution occurs when rainwater or snow melt flows over the landscape and picks up pollutants from farmlands and city streets before entering rivers. Polluted runoff is a significant source of pollution for many of our rivers, lakes, and streams across the country.

Are These Congressional Threats ‘Real’?

Several bills in the 112th Congress that would weaken the Clean Water Act have come alarmingly close to passage, and they could still be attached to must-pass legislation. For instance, the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act (H.R. 2018) passed through the House. It is one of the more sweeping attacks on the Clean Water Act, threatening the shared responsibility between the states and the federal agencies for clean water and removing critical federal backstops. The Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act (H.R. 872) would no longer require pesticide users to get Clean Water Act permits for discharges of pesticides into waters, posing a threat to water quality and health. This bill passed out of the House and passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Don’t we need to relax clean water safeguards to spur economic growth?
Dirty, polluted water creates no economic value for communities or business owners. Healthy rivers enhance the economic value of homes, businesses, and communities through which they flow. Every year, 40 million anglers spend $45 billion to fish in rivers, lakes, and streams across the country. Expenditures for hunting and fishing have a ripple effect on the economy: a 2006 estimate of the economic impacts of waterfowl hunting (ducks and geese) indicated that total annual expenditures of $900 million result in a total economic activity of over $2.3 billion. America’s manufacturers also require clean, safe, and ample water supplies. The manufacturing sector uses about 9 trillion gallons of freshwater each year. Clean water and economic growth do not have to be disparate goals.

Shouldn’t States Take More Responsibility for Their Own Clean Water?

Before the Clean Water Act, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. If you fell into the Potomac River, called ‘a national disgrace’ by President Johnson, you would have needed to get a tetanus shot. Relying solely on the states to address water pollution, viewed largely as a state and local problem, wasn’t working.

The 1972 Clean Water Act is based on the principle that all discharges into waters of the United States are illegal without a specific permit and set a broad vision to restore the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of our waters. The Act created federal backstops to ensure that these goals will be met and maintained the state’s responsibility for implementation of the law. The Clean Water Act created a shared balance of responsibility for clean water between the states and the federal government.

Further Resources

Considering the Clean Water Act Conference Report convened by Duke University, the Water Environment Federation and the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread (2009).

The Clean Water Act: A Blueprint for Reform, Center for Progressive Reform (2008)