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Clean Water Act Turns 40
October 18 is the 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act. The landmark law has been a powerful tool for cleaning up waterways, but it has also repeatedly come under attack from polluters.
When Congress passed the law in 1972, U.S. water quality was at an all-time low. A symbol of the crisis was the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, so choked with industrial waste that it repeatedly caught fire.
San Francisco Bay stank from the raw or partly treated sewage that entered the Bay in 83 places. Refineries, smelters, pesticide manufacturers and other industrial facilities pumped waste directly into the Bay.
The Clean Water Act required polluters to use better technologies for treating sewage and controlling industrial waste, which led to vastly improved water quality nationwide. Pleasant walkways now line the green banks of the restored Cuyahoga River. Cities no longer pump raw sewage into San Francisco Bay, and big industrial discharge pipes no longer flood the Bay with toxics.
Thanks to these improvements, San Francisco Bay is safer for both humans and aquatic life than it was 40 years ago. But the work of the Clean Water Act isn’t done yet: more cleanup is still needed to make the Bay’s waters truly “fishable and swimmable”—key goals of this law.
One reason the Clean Water Act is still so important for improving the health of waterways is that it contains a powerful tool for fighting pollution: a “citizen suit” provision. If regulators are not keeping pollution in check, citizens and citizen groups like San Francisco Baykeeper can sue polluters and win legally-binding agreements for cleanup.
Congress specifically included this provision to empower not just regulators, but all members of the public, to fight local water pollution. The law’s framers understood that too often, regulatory agencies lack the political will to enforce laws against powerful polluters, or don’t have the staff and resources to regulate a large number of polluters.
Clean Water Act citizen suits provide one of San Francisco Baykeeper’s founding principles: when polluters aren’t following the law, we bring suit to ensure they comply with the Clean Water Act. For example, in recent years, Baykeeper’s Clean Water Act lawsuits have led to major progress in cleaning up sewage contamination of San Francisco Bay.
The next frontier for improving water quality across the nation is cleaning up storm water runoff. Unlike pollution that comes from a single discharge pipe, storm water collects pollution from many diffuse sources as rain washes over streets, homes, parking lots and businesses, and into creeks and storm drains across the watershed—making it very difficult to clean up. Toxic runoff from industrial facilities is a major part of this contamination. In our just-launched Bay Safe Industry campaign, Baykeeper is using Clean Water Act lawsuits to curb pollution from Bay Area industrial facilities.
Not surprisingly, polluters have repeatedly tried to undermine the Clean Water Act. Attacks in the past year have been especially fierce, as House Republicans passed numerous bills and “riders” to spending bills that would repeal key Clean Water Act protections. Baykeeper organized nationwide advocacy to oppose these destructive bills, and I want to thank every Baykeeper member who took the time to contact Congress. Together, we will continue to fight “dirty water” legislation.
Baykeeper is looking forward to another 40 years of using the Clean Water Act to stop pollution in San Francisco Bay.
Photo by Tracy Corbin, Baykeeper Membership Coordinator