Clean Water Act at 50: Making Lives Better

Oct 13, 2022

Happy 50th birthday to the Clean Water Act! This law has been Baykeeper’s primary legal tool for the past thirty-plus years, helping us win hundreds of victories for the Bay and the people of the Bay Area. Before the act was adopted, there were few ways for public activists to fight the agencies and corporations that were polluting our communities and our environment. But that all changed on October 18, 1972.

The Clean Water Act gave state and federal agencies the power to hold polluters in check, and it provided funding for federal pollution prevention programs. More importantly, the law states that “any person” has the legal right to make sure that the act is upheld and can sue to enforce federal and state water quality protections. That provision gives Baykeeper’s lawyers legal footing to defend the Bay and protect clean water for everyone in the Bay Area.

When Baykeeper wins a Clean Water Act lawsuit, most often the polluter we prevailed against in court has to fix the problems that caused the pollution in the first place. But there can be many additional benefits as well.

Back in 1994, Exxon and Unocal had to invest nearly $5 million to upgrade their oil refineries to reduce selenium discharges into the Bay. The Levin shipping terminal in Richmond had to stop polluting the Bay and nearby neighborhoods by investing over $2 million to clean up its coal-loading operation in 2014. The City of San Jose agreed to invest over $100 million to upgrade its failing storm water systems that were polluting the Bay after we sued the city under the act in 2019.

Often, our settlements include what’s called a “supplemental environmental project,” resulting from a hefty fine on the polluter for its past pollution. When settlements include this element, the polluter learns that it hurts their bottom line to pollute. And the funds go directly to support other local non-profit projects that will deliver a real environmental and public health benefit.

Over the years, Baykeeper’s Clean Water Act lawsuits have secured over $12 million for non-profits working on restoration, education, health, and environmental justice efforts around the Bay Area. Much of that funding is awarded as grassroots grants through the Oakland-based Rose Foundation for the Environment. Our settlement agreements direct the funds to the Rose Foundation, which in turn identifies worthy projects to receive the funds and then administers the grants.

Through this partnership, Baykeeper’s settlement funds have supported hundreds of local and neighborhood projects ranging from policy planning and health education, to creek restoration and painting stencils next to storm drains. Here are just a handful of the organizations we’ve been proud to support:

Literacy for Environmental Justice—Toxic soil sampling in SF Bayview

GreenAction—Environmental justice and health projects

California Sportfishing Protection Alliance—Delta water quality project

West County Toxics Coalition—Shoreline clean-up and restoration in Richmond

Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment—Central Valley pesticide reduction

San Joaquin Audubon Society—San Joaquin River restoration

Greenbelt Alliance—Mercury reduction programs

Alameda Creek Alliance—Creek restoration

Communities for a Better Environment—Toxic fallout remediation

Turtle Island Restoration Network—Salmon and watershed protection

Friends of the River—Bay-Delta ecosystem and Mokelumne River protection planning

Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates—Environmental justice education

Green City Project—Oakland storm drain stenciling

Student Conservation Association—San Mateo parks conservation crew

Hunters View Mothers Committee for Health—Community health, equity, and justice

Friends of Napa River—River restoration

Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate—Point Molate conservation

Friends of Sausal Creek—Creek restoration

New Voices Rising—Environmental education in East Palo Alto and Redwood City

Wild Oyster Project—Watershed stewardship

Sonoma Ecology Center—Fire recovery, resiliency education in under-resourced areas

East Bay Academy for Young Scientists—Creek restoration and watershed research

Friends of Pinole Creek—Creek restoration

Friends of Peralta Hacienda Park—Youth watershed internships at Refugio Creek

Santa Clara County Creeks Coalition—Coyote Creek cleanup project

Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition—Environmental justice programs

The Watershed Project—East Bay watershed education

Photo: Daniel Parks, Flickr/CC

Join us to hold polluters accountable and defend the Bay DONATE NOW >