The Promise and Peril of the Clean Water Act

Oct. 18 marks 48th anniversary of the watershed law

Photo of a FLOW Staff and Board retreat on the Boardman River in Grand Traverse County in September.

When Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969—the same year Michigan’s Rouge River blazed because of waste oil—America had had enough of worsening water pollution. Public opinion strongly favored tougher laws and enforcement to protect water.

It took a little more than three years, but on October 18,1972, overriding a veto by President Richard Nixon, Congress enacted what has come to be known as the federal Clean Water Act. Along with considerable federal aid for construction of municipal sewage treatment facilities, the Act called for water quality standards and action by the states to implement the law and achieve the benchmarks.

The law resulted in dramatic, initial progress. Visible pollution in the nation’s lakes and streams declined; the reduction in algal blooms achieved by restricting phosphorus pollution restored the health of Lake Erie, which had been declared dead by the news media. Rivers no longer burned. Many beaches were safe and attractive for swimming again.

The Act was ambitious. It set the goal of rendering all of the nation’s waters fishable and swimmable by 1983, and for the end of water pollution discharges by 1985—goals that are far from being met today. According to a 2017 report to Congress by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

  • Rivers and streams—A 2008 assessment found that 46% of U.S. river and stream miles were in poor biological condition; phosphorus and nitrogen were the most widespread of the chemical stressors assessed.
  • Lakes, ponds, and reservoirs—The National Lakes Assessment 2012 found that 21% of the nation’s lakes were hypereutrophic (i.e., with the highest levels of nutrients, algae, and plants). Phosphorus and nitrogen were the most widespread stressors in lakes.
  • Coastal waters—According to a 2010 study, 18% of the nation’s coastal and Great Lakes waters were in poor biological condition, and 14% were rated poor based on a water quality index. Phosphorus is the leading stressor contributing to the poor water quality index rating.
  • Wetlands—A 2011 assessment found that 32% of the nation’s wetland area was in poor biological condition, with leading stressors including surface hardening (soil compaction) and vegetation removal.

The mixed condition of the nation’s waters is due to a combination of funding cuts for sewage treatment plants, population growth and expanded urban/suburban runoff, the expansion of large factory farms, and inconsistent enforcement.

Still, the Clean Water Act has resulted in significant progress in Michigan since 1972. A majority of inland lakes, the Great Lakes, and rivers meet water quality standards for swimming and other full body recreation.

Two limitations of the Clean Water Act are that it does not protect most groundwater (45% of Michigan’s population is served by drinking water from wells) and provisions that mostly exempt agriculture, a significant contributor to bacteriological and phosphorus pollutants to the nation’s waters. An exception to the latter loophole is a requirement that large livestock operations apply for Clean Water Act permits.

There have been numerous amendments to the Act since 1972. Title I of the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act of 1990, for example, put into place parts of the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978, where the two nations agreed to reduce certain toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes. That law required the EPA to establish water quality criteria for the Great Lakes addressing 29 toxic pollutants with maximum levels that are safe for humans, wildlife, and aquatic life.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) offers a short history of the Clean Water Act. EGLE’s 2020 water quality report is now available.

Strengthening the Act should be on the agenda of the next session of Congress. To truly fulfill its promise, increased sewage treatment funding and more effective approaches to urban and farm runoff are critical.  Perhaps the 50th birthday of the Act, in 2022, can bring America’s waters closer to the vision the Act’s authors had in 1972.

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Oct. 18 marks 48th anniversary of the watershed law