Celebrating 50 Years of the Clean Water Act

By Laurie O'Reilly

Clean water is a fundamental human right. But 50 years ago, the nation’s rivers, lakes, and streams were anything but clean. The waterways that had powered the country’s economic growth for a century had become dirty dumping grounds for chemical waste, industrial pollution, and raw sewage.

When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it offered hope for these ailing waterways and the communities that depend on them. CLF had been founded six years earlier, but even then, its legal advocates understood that the power of this bedrock law would come from enforcing it: holding both government agencies and polluters accountable, filing lawsuits on behalf of the people affected by pollution, and ensuring that the law protected all communities.

CLF cut its teeth on the Clean Water Act when advocates sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for failing to stop raw sewage discharges into Boston Harbor. The organization took the lessons from that hard-won victory and put them to work across New England. Since then, CLF has wielded the Clean Water Act to achieve some of its most significant and far-reaching victories.

CLF has used the landmark Clean Water Act to make a difference for New England communities.

While tremendous progress has been made since the Clean Water Act became law, too many waterbodies today still fail to meet the EPA’s basic water quality standards, and more intense rains and warmer temperatures threaten to erase the progress already made. And too many communities, especially low-income and communities of color, still live with polluted water.

CLF’s strength lies in its innovation in applying the law to address today’s emerging threats. CLF legal advocates put the Clean Water Act at the center of first-of-their-kind lawsuits to hold fossil fuel companies like Shell Oil accountable for failing to fortify their facilities against extreme weather. CLF advocates are also pushing the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to regulate private developments – from large universities to strip malls and office parks – that allow toxic storm runoff to pollute Boston-area rivers.  

CLF envisions a New England with waters free of contamination and pollution and as places where people can swim, fish, and play without worry. There is much to celebrate from the first 50 years of the Clean Water Act, and much still to do to fulfill the promise of this powerful law for all New Englanders. 

Clean Water Victories

When it comes to enforcing the clean water act in New England, no one has been more effective than Conservation Law Foundation. Clean Water Act cases take time and resources – work that wouldn’t be possible without the support of CLF members.

Here are just a few of the cases that supporters past and present have helped CLF see through to victory. As a member, you are CLF’s partner in creating a New England where everyone has access to clean, healthy waters. Thank you for your commitment to a healthy and thriving New England for all.

  • Boston Harbor
  • New Bedford
  • Casco Bay
  • Fall River
  • Mount Hope Bay
  • Long Creek
  • Great Bay
  • Lake Champlain
  • Blackstone River
  • Enforcement Project
  • Cape Cod
  • Big Oil on Trial
  • Piscataqua River
  • Nashua River
  • Boston's Rivers