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The Clean Water Act: 50 Years of Progress, Nine Reforms to Strengthen the Law

Public Protections Water

For a half century, the Clean Water Act has been the nation’s leading water pollution control law. When it passed the modern Clean Water Act in 1972, Congress intended federal and state agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to work together to minimize, and ultimately eliminate, water pollution by 1985. While the country has fallen significantly short in meeting this goal, the Clean Water Act has prevented significant water pollution – and we and our waterways are much healthier for it.

To put the importance of the Clean Water Act into a broader context, prior to its passage, the nation’s waters were so polluted from industrial waste that some were catching fire. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River infamously caught fire in 1969, but it had done so at least a dozen times before. These fires sparked a public movement for environmental health, safety, and protection and eventually led to the establishment of the EPA and, three years later, the landmark Clean Water Act.

Since its passage, the Clean Water Act has undergone numerous amendments, court interpretations, and varied implementation across political administrations. To highlight some of the major current issues with the enforcement, implementation, and plain language of the law, the Center for Progressive Reform has published a new policy brief, aiming to help policymakers and advocates prioritize necessary reforms to the law.

The Clean Water Act’s 50th Anniversary: Nine Key Reforms for Clean Water Today notes that, despite the progress we’ve made in improving water quality nationwide, half of the country’s waterways are still impaired by pollution. The continued destruction of the nation’s wetlands, the realities of climate change, and the introduction of new and emerging pollutants like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and various pharmaceuticals only compound the water pollution hazards that people and wildlife face.

Nine Key Ways to Reform the Clean Water Act

To ensure continued cleanup and protection of our nation’s waters in the face of these threats, our brief recommends that: 

  1. Congress direct the EPA to adequately regulate water pollution and the degradation of wetlands under a revised definition of “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) that emphasizes science, hydrological connectivity, downstream effects, and the adverse impact of pollution on water quality.

  2. Congress amend the Clean Water Act to give greater oversight authority to the EPA and states to address, monitor, and reduce nonpoint source pollution (runoff from farms, mining, construction, and other operations) and nutrient pollution (contamination from excessive nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, that stimulate the growth of algae).

  3. The federal government pass laws and promulgate rules under the Clean Water Act to protect waterways in response to adverse water quality impacts of climate change.

  4. The federal government strengthen pollution controls required under the Clean Water Act and ensure that technology-based limitations (aka “effluent limits”) are updated, modern, and effective. Congress and the EPA must urgently address new and emerging contaminants, like PFAS, under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program, which monitors water quality and limits water pollution.

  1. The EPA issue comprehensive spill prevention and response regulations for aboveground chemical storage facilities, owners, and operators.

  2. Congress address loopholes that allow industrial waste to be treated as fill material under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, thereby allowing industry to avoid stricter water quality requirements in Sections 301, 306, and 402.

  3. State environmental agencies enhance public participation, notice, and transparency requirements to ensure that “downstream communities” are aware of and able to provide input on the implementation of the NPDES permitting program and the regulation of nonpoint source pollution.

  4. Congress and state legislatures significantly increase the budget, staffing, and resources for the EPA and state agencies charged with implementing the Clean Water Act.

  5. Federal and state governments bolster and aggressively pursue enforcement measures to ensure widespread compliance with the Clean Water Act.

The health of the nation’s waterways depends on the successful implementation and enforcement of an updated and upgraded Clean Water Act. While our recommendations are critical and urgent, we recognize that our current polarized politics may delay reform. For this reason, we present these recommendations as aspirations for the future — and hope they are no longer needed when the act reaches its next milestone birthday.

By taking the steps proposed in our policy brief, environmental agencies at the state and federal levels can move our nation closer to meeting the goal of clean, safe, and healthy water for all.

Public Protections Water

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