In Urgent Issues, Water law, Water policy, Water Quality

The Clean Water Act in 2020: Celebrate the Successes Today

Par for the course in 2020, the Clean Water Act (the Act) has seen better days. As we mark its 48th anniversary on October 18, 2020, it is now more important than ever to keep fighting for our rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands. This year began with major rollbacks to protections for small streams and wetlands under the Trump Administration’s Dirty Water Rule and the COVID-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges in the enforcement of the Act as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended monitoring and reporting requirements for dischargers. These changes pose threats to our waters that provide recreation, critical habitat, and drinking water, and at disproportionate levels to low income and communities of color that are already facing threats from urbanization and climate change.

Reflecting on the recent rulings, I can’t help but go down a rabbit hole of compounding effects that added pollution loads can bring to an ecosystem and the communities that rely on clean water. The Act was put into place 48 years ago to restore, protect, and maintain our nation’s waters (CWA section 101(a)) after pollution throughout our county had reached dangerous levels. We have since seen how regulation and enforcement can go a long way in protecting water quality, but many waterways today still do not meet their water quality standards and remain impaired.

But anniversaries are for celebrating – let’s put aside the doom and gloom for just a moment and reflect on the wins for water quality that environmental advocates fought hard for and achieved this year. I encourage each of you to take some time and look back on your own water successes and celebrate those wins, no matter how small. Each and every win across the network collectively moves us toward a future with clean water and healthy rivers for all, and better outcomes for communities. Compounding effects work both ways!

Here are just a few successes that came from the hard work of advocates throughout the country:

  • New Jersey Department of Environment Protection upgraded protections for 600 miles of streams, setting stricter limits on pollution and development. The upgrade means cleaner, safer recreational opportunities and safeguarding water quality from pollution.
  • Hawaii’s Department of Health (DOH) is now required to include plastic-polluted waters under the Impaired Waters List (303d). Given the mounting levels of plastic pollution, a coalition of environmental groups used the Clean Water Act to push the EPA and Hawaii’s DOH to recognize plastics as an impairment to water quality.
  • In County of Maui v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, the US Supreme Court ruled that point source discharges to Waters of the US through groundwater fall under Clean Water Act regulation and require a permit.

The road ahead may be uncertain, but we will continue to fight against and question the cuts to the Clean Water Act, to find ways to leverage our existing regulatory frameworks (like the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act intersections), and celebrate our successes as well as those across the national network of water protectors.

Learn more about the Clean Water Act here, including River Network resources and webinars.

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