The Clean Water Act Celebrates Fifty Years

Jonathan Logan





The Clean Water Act (CWA) was presented by Congress in 1972 as a series of amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. Though it was vetoed by then President Richard Nixon, Congress ultimately overrode Nixon’s veto with a two-thirds majority. Now, 50 years on, the CWA remains among the United States’ most important environmental protection laws and has guided environmental policy for the past five decades. The CWA’s sister law, the Clean Air Act, was enacted in 1990. Since its passing, the Clean Water Act has made significant progress in “making our water swimmable and fishable.

During the 1960s and 1970s the American public became increasingly concerned with anthropogenic effects on the planet following revelations about chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), carbon derivatives produced from the breakdown of methane, ethane and propane found in air conditioning units and blowing agents in foam which are used in aerosol sprays, and the igniting of the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, OH in 1969. The amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act were so sweeping and wide-ranging that it took a completely new name, the Clean Water Act. Some of these amendments included establishing a system by which point-source pollutants could be regulated and controlled indefinitely, providing the funding for constructing sewage treatment plants and recognizing the importance of the problem of controlling nonpoint source pollution.

On that topic, lawmakers, policy advocates and scientists have come to realize that much work still has to be done in the way of nonpoint source pollutants. Nonpoint source simply refers to any and all contaminants that “do not originate from a discrete source.” Instead, these pollutants are total in their effect as they accumulate from multiple, mostly untraceable sources. Examples of nonpoint source pollutants include those generated from fertilizers and pesticides. In 2010, storm runoff saturated with fertilizers from nearby agricultural fields caused a toxic algae bloom in Grand Lake St. Mary’s, a large, shallow lake in western Ohio. The blue-green algae that coated much of the lake’s surface, Microcystis and Aphanizomenon, created a multitude of paralyzing neurotoxins which completely decimated the local ecosystem and the $160 million tourism business upon which many locals depended.

 Following the enactment of the CWA, a series of Trichloroethylene (TCE) plumes were discovered in Wooster’s well field. Previous students of the College have devoted their Independent Studies to the study and understanding of the contamination of Wooster’s freshwater supply by these TCE plumes. The CWA granted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) full authority in ordering and overseeing the clean up of the country’s water, and they wielded this power in Wooster concerning these TCE plumes (TCE is known to cause cancer).

While the Clean Water Act remains one of the greatest success stories in environmental law and protection, it still has a long way to go in truly making the waters of the United States “swimmable and fishable.” Due to climate change, the waterscapes of the country are changing in rapid and largely unpredictable ways; some regions receive far less precipitation while others receive much more. The overall effect is to create an uncertain future in which people must now consider access to clean, safe and abundant supplies of fresh water before they make big life decisions such as moving to a new state or starting a family. The CWA has made these decisions much easier in its 50 year history, but we are continually reminded of the great work that still lies before us.