Back in the late ’60′s, I attended school in a small town in central New York. Meandering through the village was a small stream, with houses alongside, and also along the school buildings. It then emptied into a larger stream at the edge of town. While I have my share of fond memories of that time, two memories are not fond at all. The first was that during warm or hot days, you did not want to open a window on the stream side of the school, or go outdoors. The second is the fairly regular epidemics of hepatitis that the town went through. They both had the same cause: The stream was also the village sewer.
That all changed before I graduated. In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed.
Passed in 1972, the act established the goals of eliminating releases of high amounts of toxic substances into water, eliminating additional water pollution by 1985, and ensuring that surface waters would meet standards necessary for human sports and recreation by 1983.
The impetus for that law was the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969. At the time, it was recognized that the river was badly polluted, and it had caught fire in the past. A documentary in 1967 detailed the problem, but stated that it was unlikely to be successfully solved, because “the costs to municipalities and businesses would be staggering.” Sound familiar? President Nixon vetoed the bill when it was passed because of those reasons, and his veto was overridden by Congress. Think about that – both parties had to vote that way to do it.
40 years later, this is the result on the Cuyahoga:
It’s one of the success stories of the environmental movement:
Today, four decades later, the Clean Water Act stands as one of the great success stories of environmental law. Supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, the act took a completely new approach to environmental protection. The law flatly stated there would be no discharge of pollutants from a point source (a pipe or ditch) into navigable waters without a permit. No more open sewers dumping crud into the local stream or bay. Permits would be issued by environmental officials and require the installation of the best available pollution-control technologies.
The waste flushed down drains and toilets needed a different approach, so the Clean Water Act provided for billions of dollars in grants to construct and upgrade publicly owned sewage-treatment works around the nation.
As a result, pesticides, manure, and other pollutants have flowed into streams, rivers, and eventually lakes and bays. To take the most frightening consequence, the Mississippi River basin, draining one-third of the country, empties nutrient-laden waters into the Gulf of Mexico. There, the aptly named “Dead Zone” regularly grows to 6,000 square miles or more, suffocating sea life that cannot swim away from its oxygen-starved waters. Storm-water runoff with oil and trash also threatens water quality around urban areas