The Clean Water Act Turns 40

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – February 22, 2012 – Comment

This year marks the 40th Anniversary of landmark federal legislation known as The Clean Water Act, and I’d like to take the occasion to extend my very best wishes.  Happy Birthday Clean Water Act!  It’s been wonderful having you in our lives!  But, from one friend to another – you’re showing your age at 40.  You haven’t heard that “40 is the new 30,” I guess.  Sorry to be so blunt, but friends should be honest, don’t you think?  Also – about that present.  I know you’re hoping for some more federal funding, but that well has become dry and I don’t see it raining money any time soon.

The 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act (which falls on October 18, officially) marks an occasion which we really should use to take stock. Certainly we should celebrate the remarkable successes that have come from this legislation.  But we should also ask ourselves where we go from here, and even – whether we haven’t already given back some of the gains earned in the years immediately following the act’s passage.

You have to recall the environmental issues facing the country back in 1973 to appreciate the background of the legislation itself.  For decades, in fact, for more than 100 years by that point, many of the nation’s waterways had been treated as open sewers or as disposal points for industrial waste.  The sorry state of the country’s waterways had been placed in sharp relief just a few years earlier, when, in 1969, The Cuyahoga River in Ohio actually caught fire.  It wasn’t even the first time the river had caught fire (likely from a spark from a passing rail car igniting oil on the water) and it only lasted a few hours, but the event came to symbolize the crisis facing water sources throughout the U.S. and helped spur eventual adoption of the Clean Water Act three years later.

In the decade immediately following the act’s passage, federal dollars were used for major water quality improvements, particularly in funding more than 75% of the cost of sewage treatment plants.  These improvements were crucial and led to significant improvements, but in the intervening years new guidelines have sharply limited federal dollars for such projects, and I don’t need to tell anyone that state and local funds have been in short supply.

So, as we approach the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, some of the projects created in the aftermath of the act are nearing the end of their useful lifespan.  In the meantime, sewer pipes or water mains that were not repaired four decades ago (many of which date back years before that) are in even worse shape.  Today it is estimated that aging wastewater systems discharge 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage into U.S. surface waters each year.

For these and other reasons, it is important, now more than ever, for public and private entities to work together to help tackle our nation’s water and wastewater challenges. We cannot rely solely on government funding, but rather we need to change the way we think about and value water and wastewater services, and seek partnerships that provide low-cost financing as well as innovative technologies and processes.

It’s important that we realize today’s water challenges – though perhaps less visible than burning rivers – are equally important.  If we really wish to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of this vital legislation, let’s take a hard look at what we do for a second “act.”