50 Years After The Clean Water Act Passed, We’re Fighting To Protect It

Published Oct 19, 2022


Clean Water

50 years after the Clean Water Act's passage, big polluters, radical courts, and market-based schemes threaten our waterways. Here's how we're defending them.

50 years after the Clean Water Act's passage, big polluters, radical courts, and market-based schemes threaten our waterways. Here's how we're defending them.

The Clean Water Act is one of America’s greatest environmental success stories. It has reined in industrial pollution and restored lakes, rivers, and streams from coast to coast. But 50 years after its passage, some major polluters still escape regulation, and the law is under threat from radical courts and market-based schemes. 

Here’s what you need to know, and how Food & Water Watch is defending the Clean Water Act and clean waters for all.

The Clean Water Act Ushered in a New Era of Polluter Accountability

Throughout the 20th century, many of the country’s rivers, lakes, and streams were overflowing with pollution. Leaving pollution up to states had failed — so Congress stepped in. And lawmakers knew that cleaning up waterways required going after pollution at its sources.

The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, did just that. It laid out a regulatory framework that requires all discharging “point sources” — like factories and wastewater treatment plants — to follow permits that restrict their pollution. At a minimum, these permits require use of the best available pollution reduction technology. 

What’s more, the Act established a visionary goal of eliminating pollution into the nation’s waterways by 1985. To ensure ongoing progress, it requires permit renewals every five years, and regulators must continually strengthen them as technology improves.

The Act’s approach makes clear that no one has the “right to pollute” and polluters bear the responsibility for their own pollution. Congress also recognized that the EPA and states may not always enforce the law when polluters violate it. So the Act’s “citizen suit” provision allows citizens to step into the role of regulator and take violators to court. 

The Clean Water Act has led to widespread and dramatic water quality progress across the country. Formerly dead lakes and streams are now home to abundant wildlife, and unsafe waterways have become recreational destinations.

The Clean Water Act is a Work in Progress

Despite this remarkable progress, half of the country’s lake, river, and stream miles assessed are still “impaired” by pollution. And this pollution is not experienced equally.

Toxic water pollution disproportionately harms low-income communities and communities of color. Moreover, many states that are economically beholden to polluting industries leave Clean Water Act enforcement conveniently by the wayside.

Progress has also lagged when it comes to Big Ag pollution, which is largely left out of the Act’s permit requirements. As a result, while pollution from other sectors has decreased, agriculture is now the nation’s number one source of water pollution.

But Congress didn’t completely give ag a pass — it recognized even 50 years ago that factory farms posed a growing threat to waterways. Just one of these facilities can produce as much waste as a city, spreading it untreated on fields where it can run off into streams and drinking water sources. 

The Clean Water Act specifically identified factory farms as point sources that cannot discharge without a permit. But due to harmful court decisions, lax EPA regulations, and a lack of transparency, the majority of factory farms remain entirely unpermitted. What permits do exist are weak and ineffective.

Food & Water Watch is taking the EPA to court to finally enforce the Clean Water Act against this industry.  

The Clean Water Act Is Under Attack. We’re Fighting Back.

For decades, presidential administrations and the Supreme Court have debated the scope of the Clean Water Act. 

The main point of contention: which wetlands and streams are protected under the Act. And recently, the Court has taken up the question again in a case concerning illegal filling of wetlands that the EPA considers protected. 

Opportunistic developers in Idaho are hoping the Court’s reactionary majority will disagree with the EPA and take countless wetlands and small streams out of the Act’s protection. This would threaten innumerable ecosystems, species, and downstream communities with unchecked pollution. 

Food & Water Watch and our allies have weighed in, filing a friend of the court brief opposing this extreme interpretation.

At the same time, the EPA itself poses a threat to the Act. The agency has embraced the concept of “water quality trading,” which is actually water pollution trading

Under trading programs, polluters can violate their permit limits and buy their way into compliance with “credits.” These credits come from third parties, often farms, that have supposedly reduced their own pollution. 

This approach flies in the face of the Act’s goal of requiring ever-stronger technology. It can also lead to pollution hot spots. And it makes enforcement all but impossible when claimed pollution controls are no longer at the regulated facility.   

The EPA has allowed states to experiment with trading for years, but it’s now proposing to go farther by adopting regulations that dictate how trading can occur. Formally adopting market-based trading schemes threatens to gut the Clean Water Act, which has succeeded because it directly regulates polluters and requires them to reduce their pollution. 

We cannot allow pro-corporate policies to undermine our bedrock environmental protections. Food & Water Watch will oppose any trading rules that EPA proposes.  

Food & Water Watch Will Defend The Clean Water Act For The Next 50 Years And Beyond

The Clean Water Act is a remarkable success story, but we have a lot of work ahead of us. Support Food & Water Watch’s work in the courts, in Congress, and in the streets to defend the Act. With your help, we will ensure that it finally meets its full potential to protect and restore our waterways.

You make this work possible.

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