Protecting the Clean Water Act is more important than ever

This month in 1972, President Nixon vetoed the bipartisan Clean Water Act, deeming it “budget-wrecking.” A day later, however, Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) led the charge in the U.S. Congress to override the presidential veto — passing the 20th century’s landmark water protection legislation into law. 

Under this law, all waters defined as “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) became federally protected against pollution under strict standards to protect drinking water, wildlife, recreation and many other uses. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, bodies of water like the Cuyahoga no longer catch on fire, bacteria levels in rivers like the Hudson, where levels once reached 170 times the legal limit, are substantially reduced and more than 700 billion pounds of toxic pollutants are prevented each year from being dumped into American waterways.

Yet — despite the success of the Clean Water Act — 48 years later, this monumental law is under assault. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this year finalized a new definition of WOTUS — undermining both science and the core principles of the Clean Water Act by dramatically reducing which American waterways are protected.

This administration’s new WOTUS definition has upended some 50 years of legal precedent and opened America’s aquatic ecosystems to the threat of toxic pollution and destruction.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that a healthy population is the infrastructure our economy is built upon, and a healthy population requires a healthy environment in which to live.

The World Health Organization finds that cleaner and safer water could prevent more than 2.5 million premature deaths annually and prevent some 10 million individuals from contracting chronic and severe illness.

Here in the United States, just one environmental regulation pertaining to clean and safe water — The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants — averts up to 11,000 premature deaths in the country each year and prevents 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks annually. Concurrent with declines in mercury emissions, contaminant levels in air, water, sediments, loons, freshwater fisheries and Atlantic Ocean fisheries have decreased significantly. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule is among more than 100 regulations that the Trump administration has been attempting to roll back since 2016. 

The laws that govern our nation serve as the most immediate reflection of what we value as a people. When laws that protect our environment and ecosystems — and in turn protect the health of countless Americans — are slashed, it’s a clear sign that the value that we place on human life has deteriorated. 

This conclusion becomes even more troubling when we consider the communities and neighborhoods most impacted by the environmental harms caused by pollution. From Flint, Mich., to “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana to Pahokee, Fla. — where residents wait annually for “black snow” to hit the neighborhood — these communities are home predominately to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). Amid this moment of national reckoning on systemic racism, we can and we must do better.

The fact of the matter is that every environmental regulation that is rolled back chips away at the health, humanity and longevity of communities across the planet. Forty-eight years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, we’re reminded of its heightened importance as we navigate a global pandemic and fend off coordinated legislative and regulatory efforts to undermine the very principles that have made the monumental law such a success.  

Many rivers, lakes, streams and oceans that continue to make life possible on this planet have become healthier in the United States over the past 48 years. Nevertheless, the progress of nearly five decades can be ripped away just as quickly as Nixon’s veto of the Clean Water Act was overridden by Congress.

There’s much work to be done to protect our rivers, streams, bays, lakes, wetlands and estuaries — more than half of which remain impaired — but on this 48th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, ensuring this landmark legislation continues to serve as the backbone of efforts to create a cleaner, healthier environment is more important than ever.

Marc Yaggi is the executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance, a worldwide network of more than 350 environmental advocacy groups that protect over 2.75 million square miles of rivers, lakes, and coastal waterways on six continents.

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