For a half century, the Clean Water Act has been the nation’s leading water pollution control law. With its passage in 1972, Congress aimed to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters through a regulatory and permitting regime designed to minimize, and ultimately eliminate, water pollution. While this goal has not been completely realized, the modern Clean Water Act has prevented and continues to prevent significant water pollution on a daily basis.
Prior to the passage of the Clean Water Act, 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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and, three years later, the landmark Clean Water Act, which has helped keep our waters clean, healthy, and safe.
Since 1972, the Clean Water Act has undergone numerous amendments, court interpretations, and varied implementation across political administrations. This policy brief aims to help policymakers and advocates prioritize necessary reforms to the law and its overall implementation in the context of its 50th anniversary year. This brief is a succinct follow-up to The Clean Water Act: A Blueprint for Reform, by William Andreen and Shana Campbell Jones, a 2008 report that laid the groundwork for many of the recommendations herein.
While the Clean Water Act has been the bedrock for water protection over the last few decades, roughly half of the nation’s waters are still impaired by pollution. To ensure continued remediation and protection of our nation’s waters in the face of growing pollution, our briefing authors have proposed nine key reforms for clean water today.