Changing Planet

A Bolder Clean Water Act for the Next 40 Years

The Connecticut River, New England's largest, at Holyoke Dam in Massachusetts during the dry summer of 2012. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, many rivers like the Connecticut are cleaner today, but dams and droughts create new challenges to river health. photo by Sandra Postel

As game-changing laws go, the 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act ranks high.

With images of rivers like the Cuyahoga burning and fish floating belly up in Lake Erie still fresh in the public’s mind, the Act transformed the nation’s relationship with fresh water.  It forbade cities and industries from using rivers and lakes as waste receptacles.  And it shifted the burden of proof about pollution’s harms from the government to polluters: the Act required dischargers to have a permit, and mandated the adoption of technology-based pollution controls.

The Act also set an ambitious goal: by 1985 the nation’s waters should be “fishable and swimmable.”  Although we missed that deadline, we are two-thirds of the way to achieving that goal. And we now know that reaching it will require addressing so-called “non-point” sources of pollution, including runoff from farms and city streets.

This year, as we celebrate the Act’s 40th anniversary, we can take pride in its accomplishments.  But after four decades, the Act needs to be given new teeth and updated tools, both to meet its original goals as well as to address new water challenges that have emerged since its passage.

Here’s a short list of priorities.

First, clarify the scope of the Act.  Recent Supreme Court cases have caused a great deal of confusion and ambiguity about what waters the Act actually protects. In particular, the 2006 case of Rapanos v. United States produced hydro-illogical results by disavowing the connections between wetlands, headwater streams and navigable waters.

I joined with nine other scientists in an amicus brief in that case, in which we wrote: “Reasonable people can disagree over language, and it is for the Court to decide questions of law. But when it comes to the connection of tributaries, streams, and wetlands to navigable waters and interstate commerce, there is no ecological ambiguity…[I]f  the Clean Water Act does not protect these resources, then it does not protect navigable waters from pollution, and it cannot achieve its goals.”

Second, provide stronger incentives (or requirements) to curb fertilizer and pesticide runoff from farms.  This runoff is not only contaminating rivers and groundwater, it is a major cause of the low-oxygen dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal areas that threaten commercial fisheries and other marine life.

Third, address pollution from urban storm water.  When heavy rains run off city streets, they carry automobile oils and other pollutants into nearby rivers and streams.  When storm water flows into sewers it can overload wastewater treatment plants, causing discharges of untreated sewage, as happens, for example, into New York Harbor and San Francisco Bay.

An estimated 10 trillion gallons of polluted stormwater annually runs off urban environments.  Upgrading sewers and wastewater infrastructure can help, but innovative “green infrastructure” – including rooftop gardens, rain-catching street designs and permeable pavement – can help mitigate the effects of storm water while beautifying urban environments and saving money.  A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council describes how Nashville, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon, and a number of other cities are investing in these solutions.

Fourth, bring the energy production practice of hydraulic fracturing under the purview of the Clean Water Act (as well as the Safe Drinking Water Act) and establish permitting requirements that safeguard surface and groundwaters from contamination.  Fracking should be discontinued or banned, as New York State has done, until the public health risks are fully understood and water protections can be put in place and verified.

Fifth, reinvigorate water conservation and efficiency.  Water quality depends on having adequate quantity. A few years after the Clean Water Act’s passage, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential directive calling on all federal agencies with authorities over water to incorporate water conservation into long-term water supply planning.  The Army Corps of Engineers, EPA, and other agencies began to do this, and had this effort continued in subsequent administrations the savings could have allowed more water to remain in rivers and streams, enhancing supply and quality.

The water efficiency standards for toilets, faucets and showerheads passed as part of the 1992 Energy Policy Act helped build conservation into new homes and offices. Amy Vickers, author of the Handbook of Water Use and Conservation, and principal author of those efficiency standards, estimates that by 2025 they will produce savings equivalent to the annual water use of six New York Cities. That is good progress, to be sure, but a new round of incentives for outdoor water use and, especially, farm irrigation is crucial.

Six, restore natural flow patterns to rivers.  The importance of the “natural flow regime” to river health was not known in 1972.  However, we now know that it’s not sufficient to keep some “minimum flow” in a river channel. A healthy river needs flows that mimic to some degree its natural flow variability—the pattern of highs and lows, floods and droughts—that the river historically exhibited and that the life in it depends upon for migration, spawning, food and habitat.

For about a decade, The Nature Conservancy and the Army Corps of Engineers have worked together to pilot the re-operation of 36 dams in 8 different river basins across the United States.  The early results are promising that we could achieve good ecological benefits with minimal sacrifice of hydropower, flood control, recreation and the other purposes for which the dams were built.  With 1,932 federal dams across the country, we might achieve substantial gains in river health by asking, dam by dam, whether we can give the river back some of its natural flows by operating the dams a bit differently.

Lastly, we need innovative responses and adaptations to drought.  Water stress is intensifying across the country, and when drought hits on top of that stress, rivers and other freshwater ecosystems often suffer.  Pilot projects and policy adaptations to showcase new approaches to safeguarding rivers, lakes and streams during droughts will be especially critical as climate impacts, with all their attendant effects on the water cycle, unfold.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • Thomas Schmidt

    The car ferry S.S. Badger dumps 4 tons of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan every day they operate, please go to to sign the petition to get them to stop!

  • John Bolenbaugh

    Why isn’t the clean water act working for us in my community. Go to to see the proof

  • john bolenbaugh

    OOPS, is the correct spelling for the oil cover up site

  • Robert Papworth

    There are approximately 24 vendors of mobile hydrofrack waste water treatment systems. These products/systems provide two modes of tehnology: (1) filtration systems & (2) distillation systems. Only distillation technologies are capable of cleaning the hydrofrack waste stream to a standard which would allow those waters to be discharged back into EPA Class 1 Surface Water, which is the most minimally responsible public health standard. But, public health may require a stronger standard/endpoint, plus adequate verification. Distillation technolgy could be employed directly on the premises of Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW) plants. This would permit the POTW managers to clean hydrofrack waste on a fee per service basis, plus establish reliable management/supervision and reporting.

  • K. Mauracooper

    I live in the desert. On top of a watertable. My neighborhood borders a canal and a wash at their entrance into our valley. I haven’t watered my lush green yards in days. We seem to be saturated with water. The canal is full to the top. Reservoirs/pools are being dug everywhere out here to contain all of the water collecting. My monthly water bill is $100.00 on average. Privitization of water across the country, oil wells abandoned for water drilling, control of the blue gold, natural gas fracturing chemicals… last week the state notified me by mail that the food and agriculture dept. would be coming to my neighborhood to inject imidacloprid into the soil on my property. To prevent the infestation of an Asian Psyllid to citrus. Two environmental scientists came to my home and inspected my trees. Not one insect found. I’m a few homes away from the canal and it’s 3 foot concrete walls. I’m told the watertable is reaching the surface ground it is so saturated. I’ve lived here 26 yrs. and never have I seen so much water. Imidacloprid is a pesticide that leaches into the surface ground water more rapidly than most chemicals. It breaks down into 2 known carcinogens. It decreases sperm count, causes birth defects including skeletal deformities, retardation, the list goes on. It is banned in many countries. Oregon used it on apples for aphids and contaminated their water. I am urging my neighbors, who do not have citrus, to refuse the treatment. The mapped region of this project shows a protrusion to deliberately contact the walls of the canal and the wash. I pleaded with the dept. to check the depth of the water table and the chemicals leaching factor. I provided reports and journal facts to the dept. and to my neighbors. Today my swimming pool is covered with a white film, after 2 hrs. of filtration, I suspect it is from the chemicals falling from the chemtrails which now blanket our skies. Clouds of chemicals meant to deflect solar radiation. Will I be soaking in a hot tub of sulfer dioxide, ammonia, and god knows what? We are having respitory difficulties, conjunctivitis, headaches- if our skin is burning will we be told it is shingles caused by chicken pox, a virus which has been lying dormant until now?! Will we be offered a vaccine for it? Did Bill Gates’ foundation develop the vaccine? No thank you. I don’t want to die. I feel we are overpopulating the planet, but if my kids have babies while taking birthcontrol pills, as my mother, my friends and I did; I don’t want them deformed. I have one retarded adult-child to care for now. I wonder how many crimes against humanity must be committed before those who gain financially from them are locked up, instead of everyone else being locked up for their personal use of non-prescription drugs because they can’t afford a doctor visit since they were fired and foreclosed on. We are being murdered. Until folks understand the truth about the dust bowel, the redistribution of fresh water, the causes of drought (like geoengineering and greed)… we will keep being murdered and those few who control the water will continue to control the world and feed their greed. BLUE GOLD. We’ve got our work cut out for us folks! The longer we allow it, the worse it will get. We must be ignorant; we are certainly barbaric- we allow so few to control us all and let them get away scott free with mass murder. BLUE GOLD, the latest greed fad of the gods… a hot commodity… and NECESSARY FOR OUR SURVIVAL! Try living without it. Quick, come up with a resource to pilfer and sell, before the atmosphere, ozone, air, sun, water, and our health are being sold… oh, they already are.

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