The 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act is October 18, 2012.
by Ted Beringer
Prior to passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, over 60% of the lakes, rivers and coastal water along the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts were judged unsafe for swimming and fishing. Although a forerunner of the Clean Water Act was essentially passed in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, it was not adequately enforced. In the 1960s a group of blue-collar fisherman became incensed by flagrant disregard for the original law by corporations that caused fish to die or taste like motor oil in the Hudson River. They organized the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association and successfully brought the Penn Central Railroad to court and stopped them from dumping oil into the Hudson River. They collected $2,000 under a 19th century statute forbidding pollution of American waters that also stipulated a reward for reporting violations. The ability of citizens to bring such lawsuits was given greater leverage by passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The Clean Water Act intended to achieve “zero discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, and fishable and swimmable waters by 1983”. As a result, many of the nation’s waterways have been significantly improved. Nevertheless many lakes, rivers and estuaries remain polluted while continuing attempts to weaken the Clean Water Act intensify by mining and agricultural organizations as well as by many land developers and energy companies. In 2001, the Clean Water Act was weakened by a stunning Supreme Court decision that effectively exempted many creeks, rivers and streams in the United States from protection under the Clean Water Act. Protection of wetland habitat used by migratory birds was particularly undermined by the Court decision that exempted “isolated wetlands” from protection.
In the local context of Kansas, the American Rivers organization has named the Kansas River as one of the ten most endangered American rivers for the year 2012. The fear is that unabated sand and gravel dredging could cause severe harm to clean water and wildlife. For a complete the list of endangered rivers visit http://www.americanrivers.org/our-work/protecting-rivers/endangered-rivers/.
Waterkeeper Alliance, the organization that evolved from the original Hudson River Fisherman’s Association, has placed its magazine issue commemorating the Clean Water Act online at http://viewer.zmags.com/publication/2a5dd268#/2a5dd268/1.