Endurance Run: The Clean Water Act turns 45

I joined River Network almost 20 years ago when the Clean Water Act was celebrating its 25th year, having endured the full-on attack during the mid-90s by Newt Gingrich and House of Representatives and their proposed “Dirty Water Act.” The watershed community was growing in size and strength–thanks in part to River Network’s first decade of work–and it collectively needed to better understand how the Clean Water Act applied to state waters.

The Clean Water Act is a federal law. Federal rules implement the law, but every state is required to develop their version of most of the programs. Over the last two decades, River Network has helped water champions around the country understand how the Clean Water Act applies at their state and local levels. I’ve dedicated many years to this work and cheered as the watershed community has increasingly employed the Act’s protections. But it has been and will continue to be an endurance run, not a sprint.

Road show and resources

The Clean Water Act doesn’t implement itself. Full and effective implementation requires the hard work and focused attention of individuals and organizations (as well as agencies, companies and elected officials) who care about water resources. It is only when the public is engaged, that the Clean Water Act’s objective of restoring AND maintaining the physical chemical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters will be achieved.

In the late 1990s, River Network developed a training program that traveled around the country covering the federal law, researching and presenting the specific state implementation of the core programs and focusing the implementation on a particular priority for the host location. As part of that delivery of information, River Network developed tools for the broader community: The Clean Water Act Owner’s Manual (a 2005 version is still available for download), an online state-by-state water quality standards database (replaced by EPA’s version), an online state-by-state antidegradation database, and an online Clean Water Act course.

Intentional dismantling & threats to public involvement

Today’s reality is that the very programs developed to implement the law at the federal and the state level are at risk due to the uncertainties surrounding the proposed budget cuts, Executive Orders that require rollbacks or streamlining of protective regulations, processes rolling back landmark regulations recently adopted (e.g., Clean Water Rule, Steam-Electric Rule), elimination of entire programs (i.e, climate change), loss of qualified and experienced staff, and intentional reallocation of funds for research and enforcement.

Most importantly, we are in a time when citizens and organizations who care about water resources are being marginalized and left out of discussions about changes that affect us all, and attempts to remove legal protections for public notice and involvement are pervasive. Successful efforts to eliminate public notice and involvement have the greatest impact on the communities who are traditionally most exposed to pollution.

The all-out assault on low-income and immigrant communities in particular – health care, deportation, repeal of regulations requiring more protections on fossil fuel facilities disproportionately sited in low income areas – doesn’t leave much time or energy for public involvement on natural resources protections. All the more reason for those of us NOT being threatened with deportation to step up to better understand the impact that current water policy changes might have on vulnerable communities. Is it lead in pipes, affordable water and sewer rates, runoff from toxic sites, sewer overflows, or contaminated fish? If you aren’t sure, ask. Find out ways you can support these vulnerable voices indirectly or directly.

Voice your support of the Clean Water Act

As a result of River Network’s efforts and that of many organizations large and small (particularly the waterkeeper organizations and the establishment of the Waterkeeper Alliance), there are now a cadre of CWA-savvy organizations targeting the greatest challenges in their communities, sharing strategies and results, making sure that state and federal regulators know that we are watching. Indeed, the witnessing may not seem to be having a great effect on the Administration’s work, or the damaging strategies at the state level, but I believe it does matter more than ever. Become a witness.

Then stand up for continued protections today.

  • The Senate will soon vote on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Budget, and River Network has developed a Federal Budget Toolkit that explains the budget process, suggests ways to identify local impacts and directs visitors to resources that will help develop messages around the impacts.
  • The Clean Water Rule that was adopted in 2015 to protect small streams that are so vital to the nation’s waters is now proposed for repeal. EPA is soliciting comments on what might replace this law are open until November 28, 2017.
  • Beyond the budget and the rulemaking, you can post a short video about what the Clean Water Act means to you. Find your way to celebrate this enduring law!