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The Planet

October 1997, Volume 4, number 8

The Clean Water Act: A Victory in Progress

When Ohio's Cuyahoga River burst into flames in 1969, Americans were shocked by the vision of a waterway so polluted it could foster an inferno. From the ashes came the Clean Water Act, passed by Congress in 1972. Its goals: All water bodies should be safe for fishing and swimming by 1983, there should be no more direct discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, and there should be no toxic pollutants released in toxic amounts. Also included were provisions to conserve and protect wetlands, long regarded by the general public as slimy swamps and homes to creepy critters, but which had finally won recognition as water filters, flood controllers and habitat for plants and wildlife, including many threatened and endangered species.

Clean water is our lifeblood. Humans depend on it for drinking, crop production, recreation, spiritual renewal and more. It is just as vital to wildlife for food, shelter and reproduction. Wetlands --shallow, water-fed systems such as bogs, marshes, swamps, prairie potholes and fens --are our natural allies in the effort to restore and maintain America's waterways and the life that depends on them.

Now, 25 years later, we have made progress, but we have not met the goals of the Clean Water Act. In 1972, two-thirds of our water bodies were unfit for swimming or fishing. We've been successful at some clean up, but today one-third of our water bodies are still considered unsafe. All of the Great Lakes and more than 27,000 Midwest inland lakes have advisories warning the public that some fish are not safe to eat. In Washington's Puget Sound, coastal waters choked with algae spawned by agricultural runoff have forced the closure of 45,000 acres of oyster beds in the past 10 years.

While direct discharge from factories has been practically eliminated, our water continues to be poisoned by more insidious culprits: air pollution and agricultural and urban runoff. One spill of millions of gallons of liquid manure from a hog mega-farm in North Carolina recently killed thousands of fish; lakes and rivers are contaminated with mercury and zinc emitted into the air from refineries and power plants.

The Sierra Club has long worked for clean water and wetlands, and has made these issues a 1997-98 conservation priority.

But then, who could be against clean water? Well, just follow the pollution --and the money. The first factories, mills and sewage-treatment plants that pumped their caustic waste into a river did so for financial reasons: It was cheaper than the alternatives. The story is the same today: From extractive industries to land speculators, the dollar signs loom larger than the need to protect community health and wildlife habitat.

And, of course, polluters and developers are generous contributors to political campaigns, evidenced by efforts over the years to weaken the Clean Water Act and the protection it affords wetlands. Plans to gut the act were at the top of Newt Gingrich's agenda in 1995-96. Current legislative offensives include the July release of the "discussion draft" of a bill that could result in the loss of protection for more than half of the wetlands currently covered by law, according to the Club's Environmental Quality Program director, Kathryn Hohmann. "It would impose a phony classification scheme on wetlands, making paper determinations in Washington, D.C., about which of our valuable wetlands should be protected," Hohmann said. "The classifications are unscientific and impractical. The draft also contains loopholes that would allow many special interests -- hog mega-farms, timber companies, mining companies and others -- to destroy even more wetlands."

Then, too, states have failed to obey Clean Water Act mandates to identify and clean up their polluted waterways. So far the Club has filed lawsuits to force the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the law in Minnesota, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kansas, Georgia, Delaware and California. "We got the law passed, and now we're having to sue everybody to get it implemented," said Mark Woodall, legislative chair of the Georgia Chapter and vice chair of the Club's national Environmental Quality Strategy Team.

The Cuyahoga River no longer catches on fire, fish are returning to rivers and streams, and some wetlands have been preserved and protected. But when it is unsafe for a pregnant woman to eat fish from a lake in the Midwest, we know our work is not done. The key to progress lies with the American people, who value their right to clean water. The 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act is an opportune time to appreciate the progress we've made -- and tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

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