At 50 Years, How Much Progress Have We Made in the Fight for Clean Water?


Photo: Ford’s plant on the Rouge River

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

This year marks the 50th anniversary of two historically significant steps toward healthy streams and lakes, the U.S. Clean Water Act and the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

But are these silver anniversaries truly green? Let’s take a look.

Signed by President Richard Nixon and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on April 15, 1972, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement formalized a partnership between the two nations to remedy the phosphorus pollution feeding severe algae blooms in western Lake Erie and bays and basins in some of the other Great Lakes. In subsequent years, the Agreement took on toxic pollutants and the cleanup of 43 pollution hotspots.

Enacted on October 18, 1972, through a Congressional override of President Nixon’s veto, the Clean Water Act provided the basic national framework for regulating water pollution and funding the construction of modern sewage treatment plans. The goal of the law was to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. The interim goals of the Clean Water Act were to achieve “fishable and swimmable” waters by 1983 and eliminate all discharges of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985.

Neither of these goals has been met — or anything close to them. On the other hand, the nation’s waters, and the Great Lakes, have dramatically improved in some ways since 1972.

Nationally, in its first three decades, from 1972 through 2001, the Clean Water Act achieved major progress. More than 60% of lakes and more than 55% of rivers met water quality standards. But thousands of lakes and rivers fell short of the standards, and progress has been scarce since the turn of the 21st century.

As for the Great Lakes, the U.S. and Canada describe the ecosystem health of three of the five as fair, of one (Erie) as poor, and of only one, Superior, as good.

What’s going wrong?

One reason for the unsatisfactory state of many of the nation’s lakes and streams is a major gap in the Clean Water Act. Although it has substantially reduced pollution from factories and sewage treatment plants, it has done relatively little to curb runoff from farms and urban areas and the deposit of airborne toxic pollutants. One example is western Lake Erie, which is again in poor condition because of runoff from farms, including those with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Algae blooms are an annual occurrence and in 2014 a severe bloom near Toledo’s Lake Erie drinking water intake resulted in a “do not drink” advisory for 400,000 customers for almost two days.

Neither the Clean Water Act nor the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement achieved its goals for another reason — aging sewage treatment plants. The 1972 version of the Clean Water Act provided federal grants of 75 percent of the cost of building the plants, resulting in nationwide construction and pollution reduction. Congress later converted the grants to loans, reducing the capital available for construction. Cash-strapped states and municipalities delayed upgrades and construction of sewage treatment plants.

Throughout the clean water silver anniversary, FLOW will explore this 50-year history. What can we learn from its successes and failures? How do we restore truly healthy Great Lakes?

The answers are neither simple nor easy — but Americans want clean water. The next 50 years will require a national commitment.

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