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A look back on the 1972 Clean Water Act - October 18, 2012

A lot has changed since 1972; disco is not popular anymore, Richard Nixon is not running for president, Betamax and VHS are old news and computers do not take up half your desk and make noises like a phone line with a cold. But there is one thing from 1972 that still makes a difference in millions of people’s lives daily — the Clean Water Act.

This far-reaching act was put into place to try and eliminate all man-made water pollution by creating a very comprehensive national regulatory standard for clean water and promote the use of new technology to clean, monitor and regulate those new water standards. Now, on the 40th anniversary of this historic act being put into place, we can look back on all the positive changes it created for Americans and think about how it will continue to serve us into the future.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 was not the first policy of its kind in U.S. history, but it was the most ambitious and inclusive. The first water standards policy put into place was back in 1899 and it was called the Rivers and Harbors Act. This act is the oldest federal environmental law still in effect and it states that it is illegal to dump refuse matter in any U.S. harbor, bay or body of water without a permit. It also states that no one can dam up a navigable waterway or alter an existing harbor, bay, port or inlet without a permit. The next big clean water policy, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, came almost 50 years later in 1948. While filled with good intentions, this act did little to stop the pollution of U.S. waters; it did not set specific national guidelines, it was extremely difficult to enforce the law and because it gave little actual power to the federal government, they could not reprimand states, companies or individuals effectively.

As time continued to progress and the U.S. rural, urban and suburban populations climbed, water pollution became more prevalent and thus far the U.S. government had not created a law or policy to stop it successfully. In 1965 the U.S. government made another law, the Water Quality Act, in an attempt to mitigate the effects of water pollution. The Water Quality Act forced states to establish and enforce their own water quality standards along with providing funding for improved wastewater treatment facilities nationwide. This new tactic by the U.S. government for controlling water pollution worked well. By making each state responsible for its waterways and interstate waterways it forced co-operation between states, companies, communities and individuals to lessen pollution entering waterways. After the success of the Water Quality Act, and due to increasing pressure from environmental groups, college students and caring citizens, the U.S. government put into effect several major green laws starting in the 1970s that still regulate most clean water, air and other environmental standards.

The first of these major laws was the Clean Air Act of 1970, which added more amendments to the 1967 Clean Air Act. This act was important because it set national air standards and forced states and companies to comply or face steep penalties. The next big act was the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later in 1970, which would help monitor, regulate, enforce and research environmental practices. The Marine Protection Act was enabled in 1972 and in 1973 the Endangered Species Act was also put into place to protect species of animals that are in danger of becoming extinct in both the terrestrial and marine ecosystems. But the largest, most debated, and most successful law put into place those pivotal years was the Clean Water Act of 1972 because without it, today’s waterways could be completely different and almost unusable.

Despite the great things it has done, the Clean Water Act almost was not put into effect. President Nixon was passing many environmental policies through Congress, trying to gain political support from Earth Day protestors and environmental lobbyists, and actually was the one to propose the Clean Water Act. However, by the time it reached his desk for consideration it would have cost upwards of $24 billion dollars to implement, which Nixon thought was far too much. He vetoed the bill, but it was passed by Congress and the House on Oct. 18, 1972.

As the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act nears, trouble again looms on the horizon for U.S. waterways. While the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws are still in effect, with more scientific data being collected every day it is becoming evident that previously held water standards are no longer as safe as we thought. Higher levels of mercury from fish we eat, huge algae blooms in bays and estuaries and other water pollution problems still continue to plague the U.S. despite our best intentions and regulations. It is imperative that we continue to fund and support the EPA and other environmental agencies, programs and companies that regulate, monitor and enforce these laws. If not, we could see a lapse in quality control leading to human health problems and irreversible environmental damage.

The first of these major laws was the Clean Air Act of 1970, which added more amendments to the 1967 Clean Air Act. This act was important because it set national air standards and forced states and companies to comply or face steep penalties. The next big act was the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later in 1970, which would help monitor, regulate, enforce and research environmental practices. The Marine Protection Act was enabled in 1972 and in 1973 the Endangered Species Act was also put into place to protect species of animals that are in danger of becoming extinct in both the terrestrial and marine ecosystems. But the largest, most debated, and most successful law put into place those pivotal years was the Clean Water Act of 1972 because without it, today’s waterways could be completely different and almost unusable.

Despite the great things it has done, the Clean Water Act almost was not put into effect. President Nixon was passing many environmental policies through Congress, trying to gain political support from Earth Day protestors and environmental lobbyists, and actually was the one to propose the Clean Water Act. However, by the time it reached his desk for consideration it would have cost upwards of $24 billion dollars to implement, which Nixon thought was far too much. He vetoed the bill, but it was passed by Congress and the House on Oct. 18, 1972.


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