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The Clean Water Act: 40 Years Later

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    Cuyahoga River fire_1969
    Courtesy of blog-cleveland.com

    The first major US law to address water pollution was the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act. Amid growing public awareness and concern for the environment, the law was radically amended, resulting in the 1972, Clean Water Act. The new CWA implemented diverse pollution control programs that addressed pollution from both point sources and non-point sources.

    In the decades leading up to the enactment of the CWA, the gravity of humanity’s impact on the environment was consistently making headlines. In 1962, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson brought awareness to the wide-spread use of chemicals for managing minor annoyances, highlighting the impacts of chemicals on the environment. In the 1950s and 1960s, cases of minamata disease, caused by high doses of mercury, broke out in Japan, making international news. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Clevland OH, caught fire causing about $100,000 in damage to two railroad bridges. Although this was not the first time the river had burned, it was the tipping point for the community, who began to press the federal government for more involvement in pollution control. In 1969, an oil well exploded off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA, spilling more than 77,000 barrels of oil in the first 100 days of the spill (in the end about three million gallons of crude oil ended up in the Pacific Ocean).

    The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm Sweden in 1972, addressed the state of the global environment. Stemming from this international meeting were many environmental policies for the European Union and the United States. Within our boarders, legislation such as the Clean air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were created.

    Santa Barbara oil spill clean up_1969
    Courtesy of marketplace.org

    The CWA addressed many environmental issues that were previously ignored. Specific standards laid out in the legislation set expectations and created protocols for cleaning up surface waters. Specific standards included:

    • Technology-based standards for effluent from industrial facilities discharging directly into surface waters and also required municipal sewage treatment plants to meet secondary treatment standards

    • Water Quality standards that set risk-based requirements that were specific to individual bodies of water and included the development of a total maximum daily load (TMDL), which calculated the maximum amount of a pollutant a body of water could receive and still meet water quality standards

    • Thermal pollution standards

    • NPDES permitting for all point source discharges from industrial, municipal etc. facilities, not including individual homes

    While there are still water quality concerns today, the improvements seen as a result of these standards have helped to create surface waters that are not only drinkable and swimmable but also able to support a unique, biologically diverse ecosystem that provides us with food, tranquility and beautiful natural areas.

     –Emily Shaw, Contributing Writer

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