Access to clean, safe water
is a critical human right.

Photo courtesy of
James River Association

A Brief History of the Clean Water Act

50 years ago, the United States recognized that access to clean, safe water is a critical human right and cemented its reputation as an international leader for protecting its water resources when it passed the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA established a goal of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters for the use and benefit of every American. Since its passage in 1972, the levels of pollution in the United States have experienced a dramatic decrease. This powerful law ended the culture of dumping raw sewage and untreated industrial waste into our waters and led to a dramatic improvement in the health and safety of waterways across the country, particularly in the law’s early years.

The benefits of the CWA were felt far beyond our shores, as the law became a model for similar measures adopted across the globe. After all, it led to massive investment in sewage infrastructure and better regulation of a host of pollutants. Notably, the CWA gives every person the right to enforce the law when the government fails to protect clean water. Waterkeepers across the Chesapeake Bay and Coastal Bay Watersheds have used the Clean Water Act to stop stormwater pollution, to prevent the destruction of wetlands, to end toxic discharges from industrial operations, and to set water quality standards that ensure our rivers protect wildlife and are safe for people to use and enjoy. In fact, over the last decade, 25% of all citizen suits under the Clean Water Act in the United States were brought by Waterkeepers.

CWA Successes in the Chesapeake Bay and Coastal Bay Watersheds

All of these victories and investments had myriad benefits in addition to protection of wildlife — public health improvements for swimmers, kayakers, and sustenance fishermen; economic benefits of restored fisheries; tourism in coastal, lake, or river-dependent communities; and even increased home values in neighborhoods near cleaner waters.

With all these improvements, however, the full promise of the CWA remains unfulfilled. The ultimate goals of the law were to achieve fishable-swimmable waters by 1983, and the elimination of all discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters by 1985! Yet today, more than half of U.S. streams and rivers continue to violate water quality standards, as do roughly 70 percent of lakes, ponds and reservoirs, and 90 percent of the surveyed ocean and near-coastal waters. In the Chesapeake Bay region, more than 60 percent of our local rivers and streams are not meeting basic state water quality standards. 

2022 marks a pivotal year in which we can celebrate the power and promise of this revolutionary law to protect communities around the country, and specifically in the Chesapeake region.