The Clean Water Act (Also Known As the Law That Made the Bay Smell Better) Turns 40

Jun 1, 2012
Deb Self
by Deb Self

In the 1960s and early 70s, San Francisco Bay just plain stank. Raw or partly treated sewage entered the Bay in 83 places. Refineries, smelters, pesticide manufacturers and other industrial facilities pumped their waste directly into the Bay.

The Bay Area wasn’t alone. Across the nation, water quality was at an all-time low. A symbol was the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, so choked with industrial waste that it repeatedly caught fire.

It was a time when citizens were rising up and demanding change. The first Earth Day in 1970 was the largest demonstration in American history, drawing 20 million people. As a direct result of public outcry against environmental destruction, Congress passed a series of laws that would become a beacon for the world. One of these forward-thinking laws was the 1972 Clean Water Act.

This year marks the Clean Water Act’s 40th anniversary. In passing the law, Congress established that U.S. water bodies should be "swimmable, drinkable and fishable," and set a goal of eliminating pollution from U.S. waters by 1985. That deadline turned out to be unrealistic and much cleanup is still needed. But the passage of the Clean Water Act has led to significant progress toward healthy waterways across the country.

The Clean Water Act required better technologies for treating sewage and controlling industrial waste. Cities no longer dump large quantities of raw sewage into San Francisco Bay, and big industrial discharge pipes no longer flood the Bay with toxics. Water pollution has improved nationwide. Pleasant walkways now line the green banks of the restored Cuyahoga River.

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. As a backstop, Congress wrote what is known as the citizen suit provision. It says that if the government is not enforcing the Clean Water Act, citizens can sue regulators to hold them accountable. Citizens are also empowered to enforce the law by suing polluters directly, winning legally-binding agreements for cleanup. Congress specifically included this provision to empower the public to stand up for local waterways.

Clean Water Act citizen suits have been a powerful tool for activists. In fact, they provide the founding principle of San Francisco Baykeeper and of Waterkeepers across the country. When polluters aren’t following the law, we bring suit to ensure they comply with the Clean Water Act.

Baykeeper’s many citizen suits have led to a cleaner San Francisco Bay. For example, Baykeeper started our Sick of Sewage campaign six years ago to stop large sewage spills that polluted the Bay every raining season. Our region’s treatment plants prevent untreated sewage from entering the Bay, most of the time. However, most cities and sewage districts have deferred maintenance on crumbling sewer pipes that connect homes and businesses to treatment plants. So whenever large storms pass through, millions of gallons of raw and partially-treated sewage get spilled into the Bay and local waterways.

Using Clean Water Act citizen suits, Baykeeper has won legal agreements requiring 20 Bay Area cities and sewage districts to reduce spills by upgrading their sewage systems. In some locations, spills are already down by 50 percent.

The biggest pollution problem in San Francisco Bay today is polluted storm water. Rain washes over homes, roadways, industrial sites and commercial areas, collecting trash, oil, pesticides, fertilizers and chemicals. The rain carries it all into storm drains that empty into local creeks, sloughs and the Bay.

While the Clean Water Act requires both cities and industries to keep pollution from getting into storm water, there is very little oversight from regulators. Citizen suits are likely to be an important part of ratcheting down this important source of toxic pollution to the Bay.

Not surprisingly, the Clean Water Act has come under repeated attack from polluters. Attacks over the past year in the U.S. House of Representatives have been especially fierce. Baykeeper has been in the forefront in stopping attempts to weaken the law, and in October, we asked Bay Crossings readers to help us defend the Clean Water Act. Thank you to everyone who took action. We hope you’ll continue helping us stand up for clean water, for the good of San Francisco Bay, our communities and all of our nation’s waterways.

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