Center for Progressive Reform

Clean Water

Working for Clean Waterways and Drinking Water

Passed in 1972 in response to a spate of egregious and well publicized water pollution incidents, the Clean Water Act established a series of technology-based pollution standards, set the stage for a comprehensive regulatory program to protect wetlands, and created an ambitious public works program aimed at building or upgrading thousands of municipal wastewater treatment plants. Although enforcement of the Clean Water Act is often spotty today, it has, over the years, led to significant improvements in water quality across the nation.

Many Goals Unmet

Despite the many successes of the Clean Water Act, many of its goals have not yet been achieved. As CPR Member Scholar William Andreen and CPR Policy Analyst Shana Campbell Jones write in their July 2008 white paper on the future of clean water protection: 

Almost half of the nation's waters are still "impaired," which is to say that they are too polluted to support the uses authorities have identified for them – to serve as sources of drinking water, recreational areas, or to support fish and wildlife. Wetlands continue to be lost to pollution and development. Nonpoint source pollution – runoff from farms, construction sites, and roads, for example – is the leading cause of water pollution today, but it is inadequately addressed by the CWA. Industrial facilities, meanwhile, are discharging toxics into sewer systems that then pass into waterways. In addition, the nation's wastewater infrastructure is aging and showing its wear. All the while, enforcement has declined, particularly in the last few years. Since 2001, two Supreme Court decisions – Rapanos and SWANCC – have thrust the CWA into the spotlight, paring back the CWA's protection of wetlands and other waters.

Their white paper, The Clean Water Act: A Blueprint for Reform (4.7 meg download), maps out a series of short- and long-term proposals for retooling the Clean Water Act to address the challenges of the 21st century.  Among the proposals:

  • Redouble monitoring to identify impaired waters, and strengthen controls on pollution affecting those waters;
  • Strengthen protections for wetlands, particularly with an eye toward the effects of climate change;
  • Beef up protections against “nonpoint source pollution”;
  • Hold federal facilities, including the Departments of Defense and Energy, accountable for the pollution they and their contractors create;
  • Amend the Clean Water Act to undo the damage from Supreme Court decisions narrowing its reach;
  • Provide additional funding for water treatment, water quality monitoring, and for federal monitoring and enforcement; and
  • Develop “green” infrastructure as a means to mitigating stormwater pollution.

 Read about CPR Member Scholars' work protecting clean water:

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