NWF View - 25th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act

Celebrating a generation of progress

  • Mark Van Putten
  • Oct 01, 1997
Twenty-five years ago this month the Clean Water Act became law, with the goal of making America´s waters fishable, swimmable and drinkable. While many challenges remain, the act has been a remarkable success in cleaning up many of the nation´s lakes and rivers. It reminds us of what can be accomplished when people of diverse backgrounds and interests come together with a common goal.

In the years leading up to the Clean Water Act, drinking water supplies were threatened, kids found favorite areas too polluted for swimming and anglers often found that fish were gone or were unsafe to eat.

As a child growing up on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, I remember hot summer days when pollution and the smell of dead fish kept us shorebound. Today, most of the time the swimming is safe--if still chilly.

In Iowa, destruction of filtering wetlands allowed pollution from fertilizers to get so bad that children were hospitalized from drinking tap water. Today, the water is safer and the Clean Water Act has cut nationwide wetlands losses in half.

Only about a third of the nation´s lakes and rivers were safe for swimming and fishing when the law was passed; today, two-thirds of them are safe. And we´ve learned that clean water is not just good for swimming, fishing and drinking, it´s good for business, too. For example, in the last two decades, 34,000 new tourism jobs have been created along the Hudson River. Cities like Milwaukee, Baltimore, Chattanooga and Austin have seen their lakefronts, harbors and riverfronts transformed into economic magnets. In view of the benefits these and other cities are now enjoying, the wisdom of the $60 billion-plus investment under the Clean Water Act to build municipal water systems is clear.

Such success seems so obvious now. But on this twenty-fifth anniversary, it is important to remember the progress we´ve made and the challenges we still face. It´s also important to remember the unlikely coalition of allies that coaxed Congress into passing the law over a presidential veto 25 years ago. Groups that today often squabble stood united then in demanding action.

It took people of diverse interests in the outdoors to enact the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and other landmark environmental laws. It took bird-watchers, gardeners, hikers, hunters, anglers and so-called environmentalists working together to take us this far. That is a seemingly unusual mix, but only an equally broad coalition can address the problems that remain.

For more than 60 years, the National Wildlife Federation has understood the power of such coalitions and has dedicated itself to being America´s big-tent conservation organization. NWF welcomes to its ranks all who care about wildlife, who are dedicated to protecting wildlife habitat and who understand the power of education in awakening their fellow citizens´ concern for wildlife and wild places. It was the right strategy when NWF was formed 61 years ago, it was the right strategy to pass the Clean Water Act and it is the right strategy for today.

Despite the 25 years of Clean Water Act progress, the fish that have returned to waterways such as the Hudson River still contain traces of PCBs, the gene-threatening industrial chemicals, making them unfit for anything more than an occasional meal. Elsewhere, waters that are currently clean remain at risk from a variety of new pollutants carried by runoff and air emissions. Unlike the water-pollution problems of the past, these poisons are invisible and mustering public concern is that much more challenging.

Addressing these problems will mean action along three fronts simultaneously: keeping the nation´s pristine waters clean; protecting people and wildlife from hormone-disrupting toxic chemicals like PCBs; and saving our watersheds, with immediate priority on attacking polluted runoff and toxic-air deposition.

There is much to be done and once again it will take people from many different backgrounds to make it happen. But take heart: We´ve done it before and we can do it again. There is no limit to what can be accomplished when committed individuals join hands to protect the special places they know and love.

Mark Van Putten 
President & Chief Executive Officer
National Wildlife Federation

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