Its hard to believe that the Clean Water Act (CWA) has been around for so long – 1972 in fact. It was vetoed by Nixon but Congress saw it through (a rare win for the environment). The CWA is so much more than a set of laws: it is a veritable toolbox of procedures and protocols, including the provision of powers to punish transgressors. As such it was way ahead, decades in fact, of any other comparable legislation.
Forty years later, the law’s legacy is hard to overstate. Not only did it empower the EPA to punish polluters, but it helped legitimize the young U.S. environmental movement at a key time in its history. River fires, toxic spills and other crises had cast a national spotlight on water pollution, spurring support for an aquatic sequel to the 1970 Clean Air Act. And unlike its precursor, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, this law sought to make all U.S. waters “fishable and swimmable” by a specific deadline (1985), and gave regulators the tools to actually follow through.
It has been described as one of the most successful sets of environmental laws ever compiled.
Here are some facts:
Before the Clean Water Act, only about a third of U.S. water was safe for swimming or fishing; the rest was fouled by sewage, oil, pesticides and heavy metals. The country was losing up to 500,000 acres of wetlands per year, and 30 percent of tap water samples exceeded federal limits for certain chemicals. All this began drawing national attention in the late ’60s amid a series of dramatic news events, including:
- 1968: The insectide DDT appeared in 584 of 590 water samples taken by the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries, some with up to nine times the FDA limit.
- 1969: The Cuyahoga River caught fire near Cleveland, Ohio, when a stray spark — possibly from a passing train — struck an oil slick floating on the surface.
- 1969: Discharges from four food-processing plants killed 26 million fish in one Florida lake, pushing the year’s nationwide fish-kill total to a record 41 million.
- 1971: The FDA reported that 87 percent of U.S. swordfish samples contained so much mercury they were unfit for human consumption.
After four decades under the CWA, an estimated 65 percent of U.S. waterways now pass the fishable/swimmable test, while average wetland losses have fallen below 60,000 acres per year. And according to a 2012 EPA report, 90.7 percent of U.S. community water systems met “all applicable health-based standards” in 2011. Not many countries can claim this level of success, if any?