The Clean Water Act’s Midlife Crisis
When you turn 50, three questions inevitably arise:
1) Who am I?
2) What have I done?
3) What else can I do?
Forty years ago, the U.S. Congress, in an uncharacteristically uncowardly move, overwhelmingly overrode President Nixon’s veto and passed the most powerful law for the protection of water in American (and perhaps world) history. Yes, this year the Clean Water Act officially enters its midlife crisis years.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 mandated that United States waters be “fishable and swimmable” by 1985
Since it is a law, and not a person, we won’t expect it to buy a red sports car and hook up with another law half its age. But having aged and weathered and yet oftentimes stood firm against its adversaries even if its knees became not quite what they used to be, it is worth asking this much buffeted piece of legislation in its 50th year, the three essential questions of mid-life.
So, to begin with, Clean Water Act, who are you?
The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, known as The Clean Water Act was not the first piece of federal legislation to protect water. But it was the first time that real power was invested with the federal government to make sure that water got clean and stayed clean. Its essential demand, that all waterways in the United States be “fishable and swimmable” by 1985 was remarkable in its forthrightness. It invested the Environmental Protection Agency with the power to prosecute “point source polluters,” i.e. commercial enterprises directly responsible for fouling the water. No longer was the onus on citizens to prove the value of clean water. Rather the burden was switched to industry. Industry had to prove that its actions did not impinge upon what became codified as an American right to fish and swim, safely, in public waterways.
Next, Clean Water Act, what have you done?
Are all public American waterways fishable and swimmable as they were mandated to be by 1985? They most assuredly are not. But the most egregious…