Celebrating 45 Years of the Clean Water Act

Today marks an important anniversary not only for waterways across the United States, but for the health and wellbeing of all who reside here. On October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act became law. In light of current threats to the Act, the 45th anniversary of this crucial law provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the benefits it has brought to American lives and why it is essential we do not roll back our clean water protections.

Before the Clean Water Act (CWA), rivers, lakes, streams, bays and coastal waters were not protected from toxic pollution. There was no effective way to prevent the dumping of waste into waterways. Toxins, pathogens, carcinogens, sewage and other dangerous pollutants were carried downstream and contaminated waters that people depend on for drinking, fishing and recreation. Waterways across the country were ruined for all beneficial uses or on the brink of disaster.

A prime example of this destruction is New York’s Hudson River. In the 1960s, the Hudson had become lethal for life within its waters. Factories had choked it with pollution such as PCBs, oils, paints and other hazardous wastes, devastating the fishery and destroying the livelihoods of fishermen who depended on the river. The Hudson had become a symbol of a polluted waterway and an international laughing stock.

By 1966, some of the fishermen whose families had depended on the river for generations grew so enraged that they banded together to form the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association which ultimately became Riverkeeper, the first Waterkeeper Organization. The group ditched their initial desire to take physical (perhaps even violent) action against the polluters who had stolen their livelihoods and instead turned to the courtroom. Led by their founder, the late Bob Boyle, they armed themselves with a forgotten statute forbidding the pollution of American waters and won their first case, resulting in the closure of a Penn Central Railroad pipe that had discharged so much oil into the river the riverfront turned black. Their tough, grassroots brand of environmental activism sparked the Hudson’s miraculous recovery and inspired others to launch Waterkeeper groups around the world.

Since then, Waterkeeper Alliance has grown to more than 300 Waterkeeper Organizations and Affiliates on 6 continents fighting on the frontlines of the global water crisis. Our 176 members and affiliates based in the United States utilize the CWA every day to preserve and protect the nation’s waters.

The “national goal” of the 1972 CWA was to “eliminate” the “discharge of pollutants” into U.S. waterways by 1985. While our country has failed to accomplish this goal, and many waterways remain impaired by pollution to this day, the CWA has been essential to helping to restore the chemical, physical and biological integrity of waters across the country. Our Waterkeeper groups have won many CWA cases over the years that have led to waterways once again providing clean and safe water for public drinking water supplies, supporting diverse and productive fisheries, and safe places to swim, boat and play. That is why we cannot backtrack on regulations intended to protect the health of our communities and our environment. We must continue to protect our waterways and strive to accomplish the “national goal” Congress codified in 45 years ago today.

Here are just a few examples of important Clean Water Act victories Waterkeepers have won over the years:

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance | Washington
Puget Soundkeeper Alliance won a citizen lawsuit against Louis Dreyfus Commodities, owner of a landmark Seattle grain terminal whose ancient structural framework released thousands of pounds of raw grain straight into Elliott Bay—causing low oxygen and anoxic conditions under and around the pier, denying marine life of much needed habitat. A help to them winning the case? A member of the public took a cellphone video of facility dumping thousands of pounds of soybeans into the Bay in plain view of Seattle’s busiest pedestrian bike path. That resident went home, sent Puget Soundkeeper the video and became a key witness in the case. The consent decree now requires Louis Dreyfus to build structural improvements that will stop all grain dumping and all discharges of any kind from the shipping pier—giving the habitat below and around an opportunity to recover from the decades of abuse. When state and federal agencies are unwilling or unable to accomplish the goals of the CWA, groups like Puget Soundkeeper will step in.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper | California
Santa Barbara Channelkeeper reached a settlement with the South Coast Recycling and Transfer Station who had the highest number of violations of the industrial stormwater permit on California’s Central Coast. They discharged polluted runoff into Atascadero Creek, which provides habitat for the endangered steelhead trout and empties into Goleta Slough, a protected wetland that provides important habitat for a variety of aquatic species. Goleta Slough empties into Goleta Beach which receives millions of visitors every year. Their settlement resulted in the permanent diversion of runoff from the facility to the sanitary sewer where it undergoes tertiary treatment and provides additional supply for the City of Goleta’s recycled water facility. Polluted runoff is no longer discharged from the facility into Atascadero Creek, Goleta Slough and Goleta Beach.

Columbia Riverkeeper | Oregon
The Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Washington entered an agreement settling a CWA case between Columbia Riverkeeper and Sandvik Special Metals, LLC, a manufacturer of zirconium and titanium tubing for nuclear, aerospace and chemical industries. Sandvik reported that it discharged more ammonia and fluoride into the Columbia River than the company’s water pollution permit allowed. Under the agreement with Columbia Riverkeeper, Sandvik committed to updating its water pollution control technology and funding several substantial projects to improve water quality in the Columbia River and its tributaries in Eastern Washington.

North Atlantic
NY/NJ Baykeeper and Hackensack Riverkeeper | New Jersey
Through litigation with NY/NJ Baykeeper and Hackensack Riverkeeper from 2011 to 2014, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection agreed to completely update their Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) permit. As a delegated state under the CWA, New Jersey was chosen to administer their own permit and had one of the worst in the country—one general permit for 25 entities with no requirement to implement a Long Term Control Plan. New Jersey has over 20 billion gallons of combined sewer discharges annually, without proper permits that pollution threatens public health and shellfish resources. Now, each permittee receives an individual permit and is required to complete a Long Term Control Plan to address discharges. Warning signs have been posted at each CSO outfall in NJ (over 200), online information is available to the general public of when raw sewage is dumping into local waterways and permittees are required to engage residents and stakeholders in the creation of the Long Term Control Plan.

Casco Baykeeper | Maine
Friends of Casco Bay and Casco Baykeeper have been working with EPA and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to craft a solution to the nutrient problem in Casco Bay, where nitrogen loading has reached a tipping point. There were three extensive algal blooms during summer 2016 that choked marine life in mud flats and lowered pH to 6.4 in just a week. One of the most important aspects of the CWA is its waste discharge permits. Commenting on them, like Friends of Casco Bay has been doing, is a non-litigious way to help ensure and improve water quality.

South Atlantic
Yadkin Riverkeeper | North Carolina
Thanks to a Clean Water Act suit, Yadkin Riverkeeper’s settlement in 2016 requiring Duke Energy to clean up five million tons of coal ash that was illegally leaching heavy metals into the Yadkin River in North Carolina. This was one of the largest sources of water pollution on the Yadkin, discharging an estimated 70,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater into the river every day. As a result of the case, the state sent “Do Not Drink” letters to over 70 families using well water around the site and required Duke Energy to provide alternative drinking water supplies to those families.

Ogeechee Riverkeeper | Georgia
Ogeechee Riverkeeper settled a Clean Water Act lawsuit in 2014 against a textile company, King America Finishing, for years of discharge permit violations that went unnoticed until a massive fish kill in 2011. The state of Georgia had failed to adequately address and remedy the egregious permit violations by King America Finishing for at least 5 years prior to the fish kill that left 38,000 fish dead, with pollution such as formaldehyde and other toxics ending up in the river. The settlement included a stricter discharge permit, more frequent, transparent monitoring, increased third-party monitoring, and financial resources for Ogeechee Riverkeeper to have a larger, more permanent presence in the watershed.

Waccamaw Riverkeeper | South Carolina
In 2013, Waccamaw Riverkeeper won a Clean Water Act case against state-owned electric and water utility Santee Cooper. The case addressed ongoing, unlawful discharges of arsenic and other contaminants from their Grainger power plant into the Waccamaw River. The Grainger coal ash impoundments are located in a populated area used for recreation and fishing and are upstream of intakes for public drinking water and the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge. Thanks to the case, Santee Cooper agreed to excavate and remove coal ash from the unlined impoundments and use the coal ash for beneficial reuse as raw material for concrete. This will eliminate coal ash toxins being discharged into groundwater and surface water associated with the Waccamaw River and protect the communities, both human and natural, that rely on clean water.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper | Alabama
Black Warrior Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act in 2007 against the Birmingham Airport Authority, alleging that muddy water from much of the Airport’s runway extension project had been inadequately contained or treated. Stormwater runoff from the construction site polluted Village Creek, a tributary of the Black Warrior River’s Locust Fork. Sedimentation from stormwater runoff is one of the leading causes of impairment in Alabama’s streams and rivers. In 2009, they reached a settlement, which included a court order requiring steps to curtail pollution and a Supplemental Environmental Project. In 2010, BAA fulfilled the requirements of its pollution case, spending over $1.7 million implementing erosion controls and sediment controls at their runway extension construction site.

Quad Cities Waterkeeper | Iowa
Quad Cities Waterkeeper took the Department of Natural Resources, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to Federal District Court where concrete hauler Ballegeer Trucking and its owner were found to be in violation of the Clean Water Act. Using an unchallenged Illinois statehood law, Ballegeer Trucking owner and other landowners had “legally” blocked off public access of the last mile of the 89 mile Green River, effectively turning it into an illegal dumping site for private gain. For years, they proceeded to dump contaminated road concrete, asphalt, glass, tire rims, radiators, car parts, farm equipment and much more into the river, blocking the channel, threatening public safety and endangering mussel species. No regulatory authority intervened to stop it. The Corps and EPA even filed reports condoning the activity. This case set a new standard against water pollution in the state. Not only can the public once again use the historical and environmentally significant Green River in it’s entirety, but this victory has opened up all navigable Illinois rivers to the public.

Gunpowder Riverkeeper | Maryland
Gunpowder Riverkeeper had a major win in 2015 against the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) for failing to protect water quality that would be impacted by a natural gas pipeline. The proposed pipeline by Columbia Gas Transmission, LLC would have filled in wetlands and crossed 81 streams that provide drinking water for roughly 1.8 million residents in the Baltimore area, yet the permit only required them to monitor one of those streams. The permit also included vague language regarding water quality standards, which would have made it difficult for anyone to assess whether Columbia was taking appropriate actions to protect the streams. The Circuit Court for Baltimore County ruled in favor of Gunpowder Riverkeeper, setting a precedent that MDE cannot issue wetland permits without including clear, enforceable requirements for protecting water quality.

Great Lakes
Milwaukee Riverkeeper | Wisconsin
Milwaukee Riverkeeper has a history of CWA lawsuits against the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD). They sued in 2001 on illegal Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSO) from 1995 to 2001. They added a second lawsuit regarding SSOs from 2002 to 2008. After they filed suit, the State intervened to stop the lawsuits. They spent 8 years fighting diligent prosecution claims that went to the U.S. Supreme Court—who declined to take the case. Milwaukee Riverkeeper ended up negotiating settlements with their Department of Natural Resources and MMSD was required to make $900 million worth of monitoring and infrastructure upgrades. Since the settlements, SSOs have dramatically decreased and overflows have gone from 50 per year to 2-3 per year. MMSD now has a public goal of zero sanitary sewer overflows, and Milwaukee Riverkeeper takes pride that their litigation and advocacy has pushed MMSD to be one of the best and most progressive sewage districts in the country.

For more Clean Water Act victories, read our 40th-anniversary edition of Waterkeeper Magazine: The Law That Changed America Turns 40.

About Waterkeeper

United as one powerful force, Waterkeeper Alliance fights for every community's right to drinkable, fishable, swimmable water. For more information please visit waterkeeper.org