40 Years Later, Would We Pass the Clean Water Act Today?

Chris Kilian | @ChrisKilianVT

I love rivers.  In fact, I love all things water. And so today I’m celebrating the 40th birthday of the Clean Water Act, perhaps America’s most effective and far-reaching environmental law.

I grew up on a farm in upstate New York and spent a lot of time stomping around in our ponds, streams, and wetlands catching frogs, listening to spring peepers, watching birds and muskrats and ermine. We fished whenever we could and had a family challenge about who would be the first in the water after ice-out in the spring and last out before (or after) the frost in the fall. We marked the seasons by the coming and going of the ice, by the water temperature in the ponds, and, in some years, watched anxiously as drought lowered water levels and put our water supplies at risk. All of this has led to a connection to waters that has infused my life, including my professional career.

One of my earliest memories from over 40 years ago and leading to my lifetime of advocacy for clean water is of my father taking me to the Cayadutta Creek in Fonda, New York to see the stream running bright red and foul from pollution from the tanneries in Gloversville and Johnstown. I was overwhelmed by the image of the creek flowing by as a river of blood. My dad fumed that creeks and rivers all over were being poisoned by such pollution.

Cuyahoga River Burns in 1969

So it’s not a surprise that my family watched the news with outrage as America was shown the image of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio literally burning in 1969. Perhaps we were told at the time that the river had burned on nine occasions in the prior 100 years. But in any case, that fire became the symbol of unacceptable water pollution for us and for millions of Americans who called on Congress for action. It helped spur the first Earth Day in 1970, and thankfully, it contributed to the political urgency for passage of the Clean Water Act on October 18th 1972, 40 years ago today.

Passage of the Clean Water Act by the United States Congress marked the end of an amazing political process. On this day 40 years ago with strong, bi-partisan votes in the House (247 yes and 23 no (with 160 not voting)) and Senate (52 to 12 (with 36 not voting)), Congress overrode the wrongheaded veto of the law by President Nixon. Many members of Congress from both parties voted yes, but just as significant were those that didn’t vote. By consciously withdrawing from the debate, many Republicans heeded the voices of their constituents, defied a President of their own party, and allowed the override votes to succeed.

What has been the result of this historic event? The Clean Water Act became law and much of the severe industrial and sewage pollution of our precious waters has been brought in check. The Cayadutta Creek no longer runs blood red, and the Cuyahoga has recovered to the point that it won’t catch fire. That is a 40th birthday present that we all can enjoy.

But, it also raises the question: if the Cuyahoga were burning today, could we pass the Clean Water Act?

I like to think that Americans would pull together again and demand action. However, the reality is that we are now living with “dead zones” that are threatening our communities and industries in Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay, on Cape Cod, and in Lake Champlain. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico ranges from 6-7000 square miles – bigger than the State of Connecticut! This is the result of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that is pouring into our waters from agriculture, lawn fertilizing, excessive development, and sewage discharges.

Blue-Green Algae Fouls Lake Champlain 2011

And, just two years ago, we all watched with horror, as the Gulf burned from the BP oil spill.

So, this 40th birthday of the Clean Water Act should also serve as a reminder to us all that clean water is as important now as it ever has been and there is still much more to do.

Here at CLF, we have a long legacy of fighting for clean water across New England. CLF filed the Federal Court lawsuit that led to a clean Boston Harbor. We have held numerous polluters accountable for discharges into New England’s waterways. We stopped oil and gas drilling off of New England’s coasts.

Today, we are fighting to protect waters from nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from Cape Cod to the Charles River, New Hampshire’s Great Bay to Long Island Sound, and from Narragansett Bay to Lake Champlain.  We are working with cities and towns to create green infrastructure that cleans up stormwater pollution and beautifies our communities.  All of our efforts are possible because of Congress’s action 40 years ago today.

Happy 40th Birthday Clean Water Act!

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