Happy 40th Birthday, Clean Water Act!

October 16, 2012, 4:39 PM22 Comments

Happy Birthday, Clean Water Act

Thursday, Oct. 18, marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a critical  turning point in the nation’s efforts to rescue its rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands from centuries of industrial, municipal and agricultural pollution. But what should be a moment of celebration is also a moment of apprehension: Republicans in the House have spent the last two years trying to undercut the law, and should they gain control of the White House and Congress in next month’s elections, they could well succeed.
These same Republicans are either ignorant of their political heritage or have no use for it.  Richard Nixon, a savvy Republican who appreciated the raw force behind an environmental movement that had coalesced only two years before around Earth Day, was among those pushing hardest for the law. Nixon sent a clean water bill to Congress, then vetoed the final product on Oct. 17 after it had nearly doubled in size,  forcing Congress to override the next day. But he did so on budgetary grounds, not because he objected to its substance. “The pollution of our rivers, lakes and streams degrades the quality of American life,” he said. “Cleaning up the nation’s waterways is a matter of urgent concern to me.”
As it was to many others.  Before Congress passed the bill, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio had repeatedly caught fire from oil slicks and other inflammables floating on its surface, 26 million  fish died of contamination in a single Florida lake, raw sewage was dumped directly in great rivers like the Hudson and Mississippi, and two-thirds  of America’s waters were regarded as unfit for  fishing or swimming.
The law has done a fine job of stopping pollution from so-called “point sources”: direct discharges from industry and municipalities. Pollution from non-point sources – farm runoff, runoff from city streets and from destructive activities like mountaintop mining – have been more difficult to control.  And big cities like New York and the nation’s capital have yet to make the investments necessary to handle sewage overflows during big storms, when treatment plants are frequently overwhelmed.
It’s highly unlikely that Congress will address these problems; instead they’re focused on dismantling the protections we already have.  Of the 300-plus anti-environmental votes in the House during the 112th Congress, as toted up by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, perhaps three dozen were aimed in one way or another at undermining clean water protections or rejecting efforts to strengthen them. The most recent manifestation  was the oddly-named “Stop the War on Coal Act,” a House-passed bill that  would effectively strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to step in when state water quality standards are not strong enough to protect public health, as well as its authority to do something about mountaintop mining.  The House has also cut funding for municipal water treatment plants and resisted efforts to strengthen protections for small streams and wetlands threatened by development.
What’s especially distressing is that over the last four decades few environmental laws have enjoyed as much bi-partisan support as this one. But bi-partisanship is becoming almost as faint a memory as the day when a Republican President and a Democratic  Senate agreed on a whole series of laws protecting the air, water and  endangered wildlife and, between them, constructed an environmental legacy of lasting  value.