Clean Water Act – What Have You Done For Me Lately?

Today’s the day. The 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act. Among those of us professional environmentalists, there has been a lot of attention given to this anniversary, perhaps in no small part because of the intense pressure from some sectors to repeal or at least eviscerate the Act. Last week I joined about 180 celebrants at Milwaukee Riverkeeper’s anniversary event, and tonight I will stop by a similar shindig in Madison, Wisconsin hosted by River Network, River Alliance of WI, Interfluve, and others.

But I also had the honor last week to travel to Cambridge, MA for a convening organized by NRDC and Harvard Law School where we heard first-hand stories from those who were in the trenches, writing the Act during those heady days after the first Earth Day and amongst Vietnam War protests, as well as those who helped with the 1987 reauthorization.

One of the common themes through all of these events, as well as the coffee break conversations we’ve had leading up to this point, is that the CWA is taken for granted. Those of us who were around in days prior need to remember, and pass along the stories to those fortunate enough to never have experienced, the “good old days”. I personally recall swimming and water skiing on the Kanawha River in West Virginia among the oil sheens. As a kid I just figured that’s the way it was. At the Harvard event last week one participant told of his days rowing crew on the Charles River and getting his oars hung up on entrails from a local slaughterhouse, while another person talked of needing to take hot showers after water skiing on Lake Erie.

Those sorts of things tend to not happen any more. Not in the U.S. at least. We can thank the CWA, and especially it’s citizen suit provision that gives each of us standing to enforce violations to our waters, for the simple privilege of being able to swim, fish, and drink. But we are not done yet. Challenges remain, including the growing assault of phosphorus and nitrogen pollution fouling our waters, turning our lakes green and our shorelines putrid again.

What has the Clean Water Act done for me lately? Every day she is working to insist on basic protections like sewage treatment and erosion control. I need her to keep up that good work, but not stop here. Past generations of lawmakers and activists had the vision and fortitude to get the oil out of the waters where I swam, and the offal out of rivers where others rowed. Now it is our turn to do the same for today’s children, so that they don’t think that toxic, polluting algae are the new normal. No one says it will be easy, but most worthwhile things never are.

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