Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Clean Water Act Turns 40: An Opportunity for Celebration, Reflection and Renewed Commitment

“The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

Federal Water Pollution Control Act Sec. 101 [33 USC 1251 Sec. 101(a)]

The Clean Water Act has a birthday this week and there are many reasons to celebrate.  It was passed 40 years ago to end widespread pollution of the nation’s waters.   Back then, there were few restrictions on the discharge of sewage and sludge was dumped untreated into open water nationwide.  As a result, two thirds of the lakes, rivers and coastal waters had become unsafe for fishing or swimming.   Thirty percent of the drinking water samples contained chemicals exceeding public health service limits.  Lake Erie was officially declared dead.  Without intervention on a national scale, these problems would only intensify.

The passage of the Clean Water Act was a turning point.  Regulations reduced the pollution discharged to lakes and rivers.  Federal grant programs subsidized the creation of sewage treatment plants and infrastructure for towns and cities.  Waterways previously viewed as ugly and unhealthy gradually were recognized as public assets.  Fish and wildlife populations recovered.  Property values soared.

But it is an iterative process and as one set of problems is addressed, new technology and changing land uses create new sources of pollution.  Nowadays nonpoint source pollution – polluted runoff from urban and rural, particularly agricultural land, is an issue.  In many if not most of our impaired waters, shutting down all point sources of pollution in a watershed would do little to clean up the water.

Also, water runs downhill and many problems are actually started or aggravated by what happens upstream.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the Mississippi River, where nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer from farms, create a huge dead zone each spring in the Gulf of Mexico. These fertilizers, nitrogen in particular, also create significant challenges for efforts to save coastal Louisiana from washing away into the ocean.  The complexity of these issues was highlighted in a recent news story about disappearing salt marshes identifying nitrogen from fertilizers and sewage as the culprit.

But there is hope.  There are many groups working together to find ways to solve these problems.  These include scientists, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector who collectively understand that sound science, innovation, collaboration and cooperation are the only way forward to lasting solutions.  Along the Mississippi River two examples of efforts to reduce nitrogen runoff are the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s

1)  Mississippi River Basin Initiative: which targets limiting nutrient runoff by implementing and measuring the effectiveness of a number of practices to reduce nutrient runoff:  such as side dressing, tailwater recovery systems, wet buffers, denitrifying bioreactors, no-till, and cover crops and

2) Water Drainage Management Initiative: http://www.nrcs.
which includes water budgeting and analysis of sub-surface drainage systems and changing practices, such as groundwater withdrawal rates.

These practices need to be further evaluated and then adapted on a massive scale to reduce downstream pollution – but they highlight that there are solutions available and more on the way.

The passage of the Clean Water Act 40 years ago was only the beginning of a process that will go on for decades.  While we celebrate past achievements, we can look forward to future challenges knowing that if we can find ways to work together – to be the best of what we are – the possibilities are limitless.

Clean Water Act Better at 40 (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) (Video)

The Clean Water Act at 40… Past Success and a 2020 Vision for the Future

A Brief History of the Clean Water Act

History of the 1972 Clean Water Act: The Story Behind How the 1972 Act Became the Capstone on a Decade of Extraordinary Environmental Reform

Clean Water Act 101—A bit of legislative history

Clean Water Act Trends Map and Annual Noncompliance Report

Coastal Bays: A look back on the 1972 Clean Water Act

We Can’t Afford to Wait to Fix Our Water Problem

Water Pollution in the Great Lakes

The Big River Works

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