Celebrating 45 years of the Clean Water Act
The Virginian Pilot–Guest Columnist Karen Forget
October 22, 2017
FORTY-FIVE years ago, Republican and Democratic lawmakers came together to pass the Clean Water Act. This landmark legislation regulates pollution discharges, ensuring that all of our nation’s waterways — from the smallest streams to the mightiest rivers — are protected from pollution and degradation.
Before the Clean Water Act was signed into law, our nation’s rivers and streams were treated as industrial and municipal waste sewers. In 1970, the Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio caught fire and burned for three days. The water was so polluted that the flames could not be extinguished. It was the 14th time the river had ignited. These and other repeated, costly natural disasters inspired a bipartisan effort to limit the careless dumping of industrial pollution and municipal waste into what had once been pristine waterways.
Changing this course of destruction was a huge challenge. However, there was a collective sense that it was everyone’s responsibility to meet this challenge and try to restore our waterways, preserve our natural areas and clean our air. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act were born of that awareness, and all were championed by Republicans and Democrats. Science, used to understand the problems and craft the solutions, was our most important tool.
Our nation has made great progress. In the past 45 years, billions of pounds of pollution have been kept out of our rivers and streams, doubling the number of waterways that meet clean water goals nationwide. Our own effort to restore and protect our Virginia Beach waterways is a similar story. Decades of rapid growth and development without effective regulation led to polluted waterways, beach closures and loss of our wonderful local seafood. With the support and participation of many people and the underpinning of good law, we have turned that around.
Today, 90 percent of the Lynnhaven River meets the swimmable, fishable water quality standard, and 48 percent meets the rigorous water quality standard for shellfish harvest. Our once-decimated oyster population is rebounding. From 1 percent of historic levels, we are now at 20 percent, with 65 acres of sanctuary oyster reefs that are continuing to expand our native oyster population. Even 10 years ago, many people thought this would be impossible.
We have come too far to go back now. Life without the Clean Water Act and a strong Environmental Protection Agency is not a place we want to revisit. Clean water is not a luxury. It is up to all of us to tell our representatives that clean water is fundamental to our health and economy, and it is our responsibility to the next generation.
Lynnhaven River NOW and the Virginia Conservation Network want to continue to move forward, to meet new challenges, to reach new goals. As we celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and all that we have accomplished since its enactment, it is imperative that we put a renewed focus on supporting and protecting this important milestone in our nation’s history.
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