Oct. 16, 2012 by Sandra Zellmer

The CWA's Antidegradation Policy: Time to Rejuvenate a Program to Protect High Quality Water

This post was written by CPR Member Scholars Robert Glicksman and Sandra Zellmer.

Visual images of burning rivers, oil-soaked seagulls, and other grossly contaminated resources spurred the enactment of the nation’s foundational environmental laws in the 1970s, including the Clean Water Act (CWA). Similarly, evocative prose like Rachel Carson’s description of the “strange blight” poisoning America’s wildlife due to widespread use of pesticides played a critical role in alerting policymakers and the public to the need for robust legal protections for public health and the environment. 

Environmental law, however, has always been about more than just repairing the damage wrought by past disasters or resource mismanagement. Senator Edmund Muskie, the principal sponsor of the CWA, was moved to action not only by the despoliation he witnessed but also by “the beauties of nature . . . in almost pristine form” he marveled at while growing up. 

Antidegradation Goals

The reasons to mandate the improvement of inferior quality natural resources are relatively obvious, and include ensuring that exposure to, or use of, those resources does not adversely affect human health, destroy critical wildlife or fish populations, or otherwise disrupt ecosystem functions. By contrast, no single goal explains legal mandates to prevent …

Oct. 15, 2012 by Robin Kundis Craig

There is no question but that the Clean Water Act has led to enormous improvements in water quality throughout the United States. Funding for publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) has largely eliminated the use of the nation's waterways for the disposal of raw sewage. Most point source discharges are now subject to permitting and technology-based and/or water-quality based effluent limitations.

There is also no question that the Clean Water Act is a statute that is still evolving to address water quality challenges that have become visible once the turbidity of sewage and point source discharges had been largely cleared away. The collection and discharge of stormwater, for example, has evolved from being largely unaddressed, to being the subject of much litigation and court decisions, to being incorporated explicitly into the Act through congressional amendments that imposed permitting requirements on significant stormwater discharges. Even so, stormwater details …

Oct. 15, 2012 by Robert Adler

Congress adopted the “modern” version of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, more commonly known as the “Clean Water Act,” forty years ago this week (Pub. L. No. 92-500, Oct. 18, 1972). As Congress faces persistent efforts to weaken this law, it is important to take stock of why the law was passed, how well we have met its goals and objectives, and how much is left to accomplish.

In the current anti-regulatory climate, it is easy to fall prey to “collective societal amnesia” about the severe problems that caused Congress to pass this historic legislation. At the time, the United States faced water pollution problems of crisis proportions. Nearly a third of U.S. drinking water supplies exceeded Public Health Service limits. The Food and Drug Administration and the Bureau of Sport Fisheries found unsafe levels of mercury, pesticides, and other toxic pollutants in the majority …

Oct. 12, 2012 by A. Dan Tarlock

As the Clean Water Act (CWA) turns 40, it is useful to compare it to the cars on the road in 1972. Big cars, some still adorned with tail fins and grills, ruled the road, running on 36 cents per gallon gas.  Forty years later, we look back on the early 70s and ask how could we consider these cars, and what we wore driving them, so cool. Today, we are driving smaller, better engineered and designed fuel efficient cars.   

If only it were so for our water protection laws. Instead, we are still trying to maintain and improve the quality of our nation’s waters and the aquatic ecosystems that they support with a clunky piece of legislation written four decades ago.  For a long time, most in the environmental community have recognized that the CWA needs to be traded in.

The environmental community has three …

Oct. 11, 2012 by James Goodwin

The Vice Presidential debate is tonight, and I suspect that, among other things, we’ll hear Paul Ryan give some general talk of “reducing red tape” or “reducing government burdens on job creators.”  We probably won’t hear a pitch for blocking air pollution rules that would save thousands of lives—which, after all, doesn’t poll well.  But that’s exactly what Ryan has voted for, over and over.

Representative Ryan’s record on regulations and the environment has received relatively little attention outside an initial burst in the environmental press, probably because he’s pitched himself on his budget, and has no real environmental initiatives specifically to his name.  (Note that his extreme budget proposal, which would slash federal discretionary spending, would devastate the federal agencies charged with protecting the public—though of course we don’t get to hear the specifics, which would be …

Oct. 10, 2012 by Nicholas Vidargas

Imagine the ecosystem in which salmon evolved and thrived in the Northwest.  As the region’s celebrated rain falls through old-growth forest, it is filtered through duff as it makes its way to one of thousands of pristine streams.  It is in those cold, clear waters that salmon begin their lives among rock and pebble, the product of their parents’ long journey from the sea, a journey they too will make in years to come. 

But in modern times, those salmon that survive their first years – avoiding predators, traversing past dams and through pollution, travelling the Pacific coast in search of food – often return to streams that are unrecognizable from just a few years prior.  The problem is that when the fall rains arrive, the runoff is no longer filtered through forest and duff, but falls on bare, logged hillsides and logging roads and is often channeled …

Oct. 9, 2012 by William Andreen

This post is first in a series marking the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

On October 18th, the nation will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.  This landmark piece of legislation has proven remarkably successful.  Water pollution discharges from both industry and municipal sewer systems have declined sharply, the loss of wetlands has been cut decisively, and water quality has broadly improved across the country.  The Clean Water Act is, in short, a real success story.  It stands as a tribute to the foresight of those in Congress who passed it, as well as to the men and women in both state and federal regulatory agencies who have worked so hard, and for so long, to restore the integrity of our nation’s waters.

The Act, however, is showing its age.  Twenty-five years have passed since it was last amended …

Oct. 7, 2012 by Rena Steinzor

President Obama travels to Keene, California, on Monday to designate the home of César E. Chávez as a national monument—a worthy honor for a key figure in the ongoing push for safe working conditions and fair pay. One thing the President is unlikely to raise in his remarks is that just a few months ago, his administration took the side of big agriculture against the safety of farmworkers.

In April, White House staff jettisoned a key Department of Labor (DOL) proposal establishing safety protections for young agricultural workers – teenagers working in very dangerous jobs.

That’s rather important context going into Monday’s event.  The White House’s press release rightly notes that “Chávez played a central role in achieving basic worker protections for hundreds of thousands of farmworkers across the country, from provisions ensuring drinking water was provided to workers in the fields, to steps …

Oct. 2, 2012 by Sidney Shapiro

When the government succeeds in protecting the public from harms, is that good news – or something to be atoned for by eliminating other successful protections? If the Department of Labor issues a new rule on construction crane safety, saving dozens of lives each year, should the agency also be required to eliminate an existing safety regulation? A policy of regulatory “pay-go” would prohibit agencies from issuing new rules, no matter how beneficial they are, unless they first identify and eliminate an existing rule that involves greater or equal costs for industry.

It sounds absurd, yet it’s an actual proposal supported by some very powerful people, though it has received relatively little attention. Mitt Romney has pledged in his economic plan to implement such a system (p. 61) if he is elected President, even saying that he’d issue an executive order for it on his first …

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