50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act and What the Future Holds
This week, I spoke to Bobby Magill at Bloomberg Law about the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act (CWA).
Fifty years ago, Congress overrode a Presidential veto to enact the Clean Water Act, ushering in a sea change in the way we address water resources in this country. Undoubtedly, the CWA’s requirement for additional treatment at wastewater treatment plants led to major water quality improvements in our rivers, lakes, and streams. So did the CWA’s requirement that point source dischargers obtain a permit and meet technology-based treatment standards. There are more fishable waters today than there were 50 years ago, and water quality has improved significantly throughout the country.
There is still substantial room for improvement. Nonpoint pollution sources from urban and agricultural runoff are still largely unaddressed, emerging pollutants (e.g. pharmaceuticals) pose serious threats, and infrastructure issues (e.g. Flynt, Michigan) compound challenges for clean water. Additionally, as with many areas of environmental law, the reach of the Clean Water Act remains unsettled. Cases such as the Sackett appeal before the Supreme Court may limit the EPA’s ability to address water quality impacts from water features that lack a sufficiently direct connection to regulated waters.
Additionally, the cost to limit water pollution and provide clean water has been and will remain enormous. In an era of inflation and competing demands on our infrastructure, continued investment in clean water will be subject to substantial cost-allocation pressure.
The history of the first 50 years of the CWA teaches us that continued improvements in water quality – and indeed maintenance of water quality – will require proactive regulatory work by Federal and state governments, judicious enforcement, and prioritization for funding. This is a tall order, but after a half-century, the protection of our water resources has become more engrained and normative, and I am optimistic that, on balance, we will continue to see improvements.