President's View

Five Decades of Protecting Our Waters

  • Collin O’Mara President & CEO of the National Wildlife Federation
  • Conservation
  • Jun 09, 2022

Geese enter the Straits of Mackinac, connecting Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. NWF and partners are working to shut down an aging oil pipeline under the surface that threatens these waters.

CLEAN WATER IS LIFE. During the past 50 years, many Americans have grown accustomed to the benefits of the Clean Water Act. Many of us can’t personally recall rivers so toxic they could peel paint, and we can only imagine the days when Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire and raw sewage fouled Boston Harbor. Today, we take it for granted that we can swim in Lake Erie, catch fish in the Chicago River and paddleboard on the Potomac.

Despite this progress, we cannot grow complacent. Americans still deeply value federal protections for our nation’s waters. Decades of polling has consistently found that protecting our waters remains Americans’ top environmental concern, with strong support across the political spectrum. We value safe drinking water and healthy waterways because we intuitively recognize that clean water underpins our physical health, our economy, our way of life and the health of the wildlife and habitats we treasure.

The National Wildlife Federation has long been at the forefront of protecting the nation’s waters for people and wildlife. Fifty years ago, we were instrumental in building support for the Clean Water Act, which passed in 1972. Today, we work with federal decision-makers to ensure that the landmark law is implemented based on science and to secure robust and equitable funding for clean-water infrastructure needs around the nation.

Unfortunately, today there is an industry-backed push that is ignoring the public’s broad consensus around the need to protect our waters. Some industries with a history of polluting our waterways are working to weaken the rules that implement the Clean Water Act on the ground. The ultimate goal is to hamstring the law, largely by narrowing the scope of streams and wetlands that it covers—but also by limiting scientific review and states’ and Tribes’ ability to protect waters in their jurisdictions.

Americans know that protecting all our waters—from tiny trout streams to major rivers to seasonal prairie wetlands where ducks breed—matters to all of us. I am confident the public won’t stand for efforts to take us back to the days when dirty and degraded waters were commonplace. Our Federation is working side by side with our affiliates, states, Tribes and other partners nationwide as we redouble our efforts to protect clean water for people and wildlife—because the reality is that we all live downstream.

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Follow Collin O’Mara on Twitter @Collin_OMara. To share your thoughts and opinions, email him at

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