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The Planet
Clean Water Act Turns Thirty

By Tom Valtin

The Clean Water Act, considered one of the most successful environmental laws in America, celebrated its 30th anniversary on October 18.

Thirty years ago, only 30 to 40 percent of the nation's rivers, lakes, and coastal waters were considered safe for swimming and fishing. Today, nearly 60 percent of our waters are estimated to be safe for these uses.

On June 22, 1969, a train passing over the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland kicked up sparks that fell into the polluted water below, setting the river ablaze. Flames soaring up to five stories high were captured on film and reported in the national media, prompting public outrage that led to the creation of the Clean Water Act three years later.

The law stopped industries and municipalities from discharging untreated wastes, provided generous financing for sewage treatment plants, and slowed the rapid loss of wetlands by limiting commercial and residential development. But the hardest work still remains. While the law has admirably controlled so-called end-of-pipe pollution, little progress has been made to control polluted runoff from farms, timber operations, city streets, even suburban lawns.

More than 75 percent of Americans still live within 10 miles of a polluted waterway. There were 11,000 days of beach closings due to pollution last year, polluters still routinely break the law, and 60,000 acres of wetlands are destroyed annually. The Bush administration has done little to broaden the reach of the Clean Water Act; in fact, it has moved to weaken it in fundamental ways, chiefly by narrowing its scope.

"After many years of progress, we've been losing momentum lately," said Sierra Club Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton. "Some waterways that had been cleaned up are getting dirtier again. The 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act should serve as a call for us to redouble our efforts to fulfill its goal of clean water for all Americans."

Find out more about the Clean Water Act.

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