On the 50th Anniversary of Clean Water Act, We Need to Act for a Cleaner, More Just Future

The year 1972 created memorable and iconic moments for many people. 1972 gave us the first pocket calculator, Watergate, the smash TV show M*A*S*H, and Francis Coppola’s “The Godfather.” 1972 was also the peak of the environmental movement that demanded that the U.S. recognize that access to safe, clean water is a basic right. In a spirit of bipartisanship that is rarely seen today, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act is the backbone of laws protecting waters from pollution discharge as well as regulating water quality standards. There can be endless debate over whether the Clean Water Act has met its objective of “restoration and maintenance of chemical, physical and biological integrity of Nation’s waters” 50 years later. There is no doubt that the nation’s waters have greatly benefited from ending of the culture of dumping raw sewage and untreated industrial waste into our waterways. This is in large part because the Clean Water Act gives every person the right to enforce the law when the government fails to protect clean water. In our region, Waterkeepers and other water advocates have stepped in to enforce the Clean Water Act on behalf of everyone who lives here to great success.

On this 50th anniversary, we reflect on how the Clean Water Act has led to a dramatic improvement in the health and safety of waterways across the country, we have to also acknowledge that about two out of three of our local rivers and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed don’t meet basic state water quality standards, leaving many of our communities – mostly low income and communities of color – overburdened by pollution.

Given the current climate crisis, the next 50 years of the Clean Water Act are just as, if not more important, than the previous 50 years. In order to make the next 50 years more successful, we must demand corporate accountability and better enforcement, plan for more frequent and intense rainstorms, ensure environmental justice, enhance access to nature for all, and invest in our communities while putting their voices first.

The Biden administration has taken important steps towards emphasizing the importance of environmental justice and making strides to achieve equity that had not been made in the previous 50 years. The Justice40 initiative announced by the President in 2021 mandates that at least 40% of the benefits of certain federal funding programs must flow to disadvantaged communities. In following the implementation of Justice40, the EPA announced the creation of the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights to engage communities with environmental justice concerns to understand their needs, provide historical amounts of grants and technical assistance, and coordinate with other EPA offices to incorporate environmental justice into the agency’s programs. These actions taken by the Biden Administration demonstrate a positive approach taken towards achieving environmental justice but this funding and support merely provide the tools, leaving clean water advocates and communities to take action.

We have the tools and the potential, but we need to take collective action. 2022 marks a monumental year to celebrate the power and promise of the Clean Water Act to protect our waterways while also empowering communities to demand equal justice and access to clean water. We need to centralize how enforcing clean water laws—something that anyone can do if they are empowered—is a key to environmental justice for the low-income and communities of color who face disproportionately high pollutant exposures. The 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act is an opportunity to catalyze our past successes into a cleaner, more just future. Together, we can harness the energy, success, and momentum of the past five decades to face today’s challenges and obtain clean water justice for everyone.