Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act

By Nancy Stoner

I am proud to be at EPA in 2012 for the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the nation’s foremost law for protecting our most irreplaceable resource. I often think about how a generation ago, the American people faced health and environmental threats in their waters that are almost unimaginable today.

Municipal and household wastes flowed untreated into our rivers, lakes and streams. Harmful chemicals were poured into the water from factories, chemical manufacturers, power plants and other facilities. Two-thirds of waterways were unsafe for swimming or fishing. Polluters weren’t held responsible. We lacked the science, technology and funding to address the problems.

Then on October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act became law.

In the 40 years since, the Clean Water Act has kept tens of billions of pounds of sewage, chemicals and trash out of our waterways. Urban waterways have gone from wastelands to centers of redevelopment and activity, and we have doubled the number of American waters that meet standards for swimming and fishing. We’ve developed incredible science and spurred countless innovations in technology.

But I realize that despite the progress, there is still much, much more work to be done. And there are many challenges to clean water.

Today one-third of America’s assessed waterways still don’t meet water quality standards. Our nation’s water infrastructure is in tremendous need of improvement – the American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a D-, the lowest grade given to any public infrastructure. The population will grow 55 percent from 2000 and 2050, which will put added strain on water resources. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is increasingly harming streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters. Climate change is predicted to bring warmer temperatures, sea level rise, stronger storms, more droughts and changes to water chemistry. And we face less conventional pollutants – so-called emerging contaminants – that we’ve only recently had the science to detect.

The absolute best path forward is partnership – among all levels of government, the private sector, non-profits and the public. It is only because of partnership that we made so much progress during the past 40 years, and it is partnership that will lead to more progress over the next 40 years.

Lastly, I want to thank everyone who has been part of protecting water and for working to ensure that this vital resource our families, communities and economy depends on is safeguarded for generations to come.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water