40 Year Old Milestone

Water art-41972 was a watershed year for American water. That fall, an
unusually unified Congress overrode President Nixon's veto and passed the Clean
Water Act
, a historic law that transformed the country's relationship with
its water supply.

Forty years later, the law's legacy is hard to overstate.
Not only did it empower the EPA to punish polluters, but it helped legitimize
the young U.S. environmental movement at a key time in its history. River
fires, toxic spills and other crises had cast a national spotlight on water
pollution, spurring support for an aquatic sequel to the 1970 Clean Air Act.
And unlike its precursor, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, this
law sought to make all U.S. waters "fishable and swimmable" by a
specific deadline (1985), and gave regulators the tools to actually follow
through.

The CWA mainly targets big, point-source pollution like
sewage leaks and oil spills, but it has also improved more than just water
quality, says Bill Holman, director of state policy at Duke University's
Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. "It's one of the
most successful environmental laws ever enacted. The country has made huge
strides in reducing pollution from wastewater treatment plants and industries,
and it has even helped spark redevelopment of many areas, because waterfront
property is valuable again. People like being close to clean water."

 

Before the Clean Water Act, only about a third of U.S. water
was safe for swimming or fishing; the rest was fouled by sewage, oil,
pesticides and heavy metals. The country was losing up to 500,000 acres of
wetlands per year
, and 30 percent of tap water samples exceeded federal limits
for certain chemicals. All this began drawing national attention in the late
'60s amid a series of dramatic news events, including:

  • 1968: The insectide DDT appeared in 584 of 590 water samples
    taken by the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries, some with up to nine times
    the FDA limit.
  • 1969: The Cuyahoga River caught fire near Cleveland, Ohio,
    when a stray spark — possibly from a passing train — struck an oil slick
    floating on the surface.
  • 1969: Discharges from four food-processing plants killed 26
    million fish in one Florida lake, pushing the year's nationwide fish-kill
    total to a record 41 million.
  • 1971: The FDA reported that 87 percent of U.S. swordfish
    samples contained so much mercury they were unfit for human consumption.Russell McLendon/Huffintonpost.com

 

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