Clean Water Act at 50: environmental gains, challenges unmet

Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to protect U.S. waterways from abuses like the oily industrial pollution that caused Ohio's Cuyahoga River to catch on fire in 1969

John Flesher
Monday 17 October 2022 18:49 BST

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Lifelong Cleveland resident Steve Gove recalls when the Cuyahoga River symbolized shame — fetid, lifeless, notorious for catching fire when sparks from overhead rail cars ignited the oil-slicked surface.

“It was pretty grungy,” said the 73-year-old, a canoeist in his youth who sometimes braved the filthy stretch through the steelmaking city.

Outrage over a 1969 Cuyahoga fire — the latest in a series of environmental disasters including a 3-million-gallon oil spill off California's Santa Barbara — is widely credited with inspiring the Clean Water Act of 1972.

As officials and community leaders prepared to celebrate the law's 50th anniversary Tuesday near the river mouth at Lake Erie, the Cuyahoga again is emblematic. It represents progress toward restoring abused waterways — and challenges that remain after the act's crackdown on industrial and municipal sewage discharges and years of cleanup work.

A 1967 survey found not a single fish between Akron and Cleveland. Now, there are more than 70 species. The Cuyahoga is popular with boaters. Parks and restaurants line its banks.

“I have folks come into my office routinely from other states and around the world, wanting to see the Cuyahoga River," said Kurt Princic, a district chief for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet the river remains on a U.S.-Canada list of “hot spots" in the Great Lakes region, plagued by erosion, historic contamination, storm water runoff and sewage overflows. Toxic algae blooms appear on Lake Erie in summer, caused primarily by farm fertilizer and manure.

The Clean Water Act established ambitious goals: making the nation's waters “fishable and swimmable" and restoring their integrity. It gave the newly established U.S. Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate polluters.

“We've made tremendous progress,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in an Associated Press interview Friday. “By passing the Clean Water Act, Congress solidified the importance of protecting our lakes, rivers and streams for generations to come.”

Experts and activists agree many waterways are healthier now, and the Biden administration's 2021 infrastructure package includes $50 billion to upgrade drinking water and wastewater treatment systems, replace lead pipes and cleanse drinking water.

But the law's aims have been only “halfway met,” said Oday Salim, director of the University of Michigan's Environmental Law and Sustainability Clinic.

The measure's crowning achievement, Salim said, is a program requiring polluting industries and sewage treatment plans to get permits limiting their releases into waters.

Yet the agency is far behind on strengthening those requirements to reflect pollution control technology improvements, said Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement chief and executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

One result, Schaeffer said, is more than 50% of lake, river and stream miles periodically assessed are still impaired.

Regan acknowledged EPA has “some more work to do” but had an “aggressive agenda to curtail pollution."

“We can't ignore that the previous administration did not take action,” he said.

The Clean Water Act prompted many states to prohibit laundry detergents containing phosphorus. Some had labeled Lake Erie “dead” as the soaps fueled algae blooms that killed fish.

The bans caused a turnaround in the 1980s. Erie was blue once more instead of brown.

Yet the algae blooms were back within a couple of decades — this time because of a problem the Clean Water Act had sidestepped.

Its emission limits and permitting requirements apply to wastes released into waters from identifiable sources, such as factories. But it doesn't regulate runoff pollution from indirect sources: fertilizers and pesticides from farm fields and lawns; oil and toxic chemicals from city streets and parking lots.

Such runoff pollution is now the leading cause of U.S. waterway impairments.

Environmentalists who have long argued the law allows regulation of large livestock farm pollution sued EPA this month, demanding a tougher approach. But federal and state agencies rely mostly on voluntary programs that provide financial assistance to farms for using practices such as cover crops that hold soil during off-seasons. Farm groups resist making them mandatory.

Stan Meiburg, director of the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest University and a former EPA deputy administrator, favors requiring farms to bear costs of environmental damage they cause if a workable system could be found.

But, he added, “I find it unlikely that any legislation any time soon is going to impose wide-scale restrictions on how farmers conduct their activities.”

A case argued this month before the U.S. Supreme Court involved one of the longest-running debates about the Clean Water Act: Which waters does it legally protect?

Lakes, rivers and streams are covered, as are adjacent wetlands. But 40 years of court battles and regulatory rewrites have left unsettled the status of wetlands not directly connected to a larger water body — and of seasonal streams.

“We want to preserve and protect our ability and statutory authority to regulate in this area,” EPA's Regan said, describing wetlands as crucial for filtering out pollutants, storing floodwaters and providing habitat.

His agency is rewriting rules for those waters, even as the Supreme Court prepares to provide its own interpretation from the case of an Idaho couple who wants to build a house on land with swampy areas near a lake.

“What's at stake here is at least half the waterways in this country,” said Jon Devine of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The National Association of Homebuilders, which supports the Idaho couple's challenge of an EPA order to stop work on their house, says states can better oversee isolated wetlands and ephemeral streams than EPA.

“The federal government doesn’t have the bandwidth to regulate every single tiny wetland away from anything that would be considered navigable," said Tom Ward, the group's vice president for legal advocacy.

Environmental justice is a high-profile issue nowadays.

But for Crystal M.C. Davis, it became more real after the 1969 Cuyahoga fire, when Carl Stokes, Cleveland's first Black mayor, filed a complaint with the state seeking help cleaning up the river.

“The renaissance of the Cuyahoga River is personal to us,” said Davis, who is Black and a vice president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “That's why we have to stop and celebrate, even though there's still room for improvement."


Follow John Flesher on Twitter: @JohnFlesher.


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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