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Pushing 40

Insights + Opinion

Marc Yaggi

The Clean Water Act is 39 years old this month. We all have a lot to celebrate. Since its enactment in 1972, the Clean Water Act (CWA) has cleaned up many of our waterways. However, throughout the last decade, we have seen the U.S. Supreme Court narrow the jurisdiction of the CWA, federal administration issue guidance to further narrow the court’s ruling and state agencies dramatically cutting their clean water enforcement budgets. And now, the 112th Congress seems to be having its own midlife crisis by issuing a slate of reckless bills to render the CWA ineffective. Instead of trying to relive its youth, U.S. legislators have sided with polluters and lobbyists, and decided to take an irresponsible joyride at the expense of our right to swimmable, drinkable and fishable waters. Throughout the next year, leading up to the CWA’s 40th birthday, we need to show our elected officials that as a civil society we are not going to stand for their attempts to gut one of the most successful environmental laws in U.S. history. Congress needs a lesson from the 1971 S.E. Hinton novel, That Was Then, This Is Now. That Was Then:  Even after the construction of a sewage treatment plant in 1947, the City of Bremerton, Washington, still discharged millions of gallons of raw sewage into Puget Sound. Its antiquated combined sewer system was overwhelmed during rain events, and overflowed hundreds of times every year contaminating the Sound and forcing closures of local shellfish beds. This Is Now:  Using the CWA, Puget SoundkeeperAlliance recently completed an 18-year federal consent decree with the City of Bremerton. As a result of Puget Soundkeeper’s action, the city has reduced the volume of its combined sewer overflows by 99 percent, which directly led to the reopening of nearby commercial shellfish beds in Puget Sound. These shellfish beds, which had been closed for more than 40 years, are culturally and economically important to the Suquamish Tribe who now can harvest their ancestral fishing grounds once again. That Was Then:  In the 1960s, the Hudson River was a national laughingstock due to raw sewage, oil from Penn Central Railroad and other industrial pollutants that turned the river into a toxic stew. This Is Now:  After decades of CWA implementation and enforcement from groups like the Hudson Riverkeeper, the Hudson River has regained its status as a gem. Though the river still remains under threat, many of the industries and municipalities have stopped vomiting toxic chemicals into the river. Instead, residents and visitors flock to the river for recreation and celebrate its revitalization. That was then:  Dams on the Yadkin River in North Carolina starved the river of oxygen for years, leading the river to a slow death. This is now:  Using the CWA and showing evidence that Alcoa was withholding information about whether their dam upgrades would allow the river to meet water quality standards for dissolved oxygen, Yadkin Riverkeeper was able to block Alcoa’s certification renewal for a license to operate the dams for the next 50 years. That was then:  In 1927, the Portland City Club described the Willamette River as “ugly and filthy” and construction workers refused to work on riverside projects because conditions were intolerable. The river continued to be one of our nation’s dirtiest, but fortunately national attention, in the late 60s and early 70s, enabled a significant leap forward in water quality. This is now:  While continuing to face threats from stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows, the river has seen significant improvements in water quality due to the CWA and groups like Willamette Riverkeeper. The river is now one of the most heavily used recreation rivers in the U.S. These are just a few examples of success stories thanks to the CWA and organizations working to promote clean water. However, water quality problems still remain. Stormwater continues to poison our waters, mountaintop removal coal mining is destroying waterways throughout the Appalachian region, and the oil and gas industry is wreaking havoc on our natural resources. Now is the time to strengthen the CWA, not gut it. Clean water creates jobs and reduces health care costs. We should be cleaning our waterways, not polluting them. It’s time for us stand up and fight for our right to clean water. Let Congress know you support the Clean Water Act. With your support, hopefully we won’t, like the main character Byron in Hinton’s young adult novel, find ourselves longing for a time when clean water was something we valued as a civil society.

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