The Clean Water Act at 30
December 6, 2002
by Dennis T. Avery
We recently passed the thirtieth birthday of the Clean Water Act.
When the CWA was signed into law on Oct. 18, 1972, most of us still vividly remembered the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire (due to an oil spill) in 1969. The Potomac River flowing past the Capitol Building was too polluted for fishing, let alone swimming. For two hundred years, America used its rivers as sewers to carry away human and industrial wastes—while the number of humans and industries expanded and multiplied exponentially. In 1972, America called a halt.
Since then, we’ve spent billions of dollars to improve U.S. sewage treatment and separate our sanitary sewers from our storm sewers. Industries no longer routinely dump dangerous industrial pollutants into their drainpipes, and most have radically reduced their overall wastes through cleaner processes, recovery, and recycling. More of our livestock and poultry are housed in confinement so their wastes can be used as organic fertilizer, instead of being washed from the barnyards into the nearest stream with every storm.
Fishing and swimming are probably safer and more accessible to Americans now than they’ve been since independence in 1776.
Should we look at the thirtieth birthday of the CWA with pride in a job well done? Or should we launch another costly set of water regulations?
Under the Clinton Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a new water regulation that would have dwarfed Hilary Clinton’s proposed government takeover of health care. The EPA proposal (called Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs) would have used impaired water quality as the excuse to manage American society—deciding how many houses could be built in which watershed, what businesses could be located where, and what crops and livestock could be grown on which farms. EPA might even have regulated highway driving because nitrous oxide from auto exhausts can wash into the streams.
In a rare Washington revolt against eco-regulation, Congress ordered the EPA to step back from its TMDL proposal. The agency and its activist supporters had overreached. The EPA’s position was made more awkward by the fact that the states had never collected the water quality data mandated in the Clean Water and by a report from Congress’ own Government Accounting Office that said the National Water Quality Inventory was essentially useless.
Critics charge that the EPA has never wanted good water quality data because the data gap left the bureaucrats free to keep claiming the need for still-more-stringent regulation.
Where is water quality headed today, in the aftermath of the Congressional rollback of TMDLs? The Greens continue to claim that a huge percentage of our streams and lakes are “impaired.” Never mind that there is virtually no monitoring to support the listings.
Mostly, the activists are hoping for another marine scare like the Pfiesteria outbreak that killed thousands of small fish in Maryland rivers of the Eastern Shore in 1997. But Pfiesteria broke out only once, and scientists have been unable to show that it produces a deadly toxin—let alone that Pfiesteria is linked to pollution or nutrients in the water as eco-activists have charged.
A recent letter to EPA Administrator Christy Todd Whitman from 38 Democratic Congressmen demands that the TMDL regulation be put into effect, but 38 Congresspersons from one party don’t constitute much force in Washington.
At the EPA, Mrs. Whitman wants to amend the TMDL proposal to allow basin-wide cooperation on consensus water quality goals, rather than relying on finger pointing and expensive lawsuits based on inadequate water monitoring. Whitman is also pushing the agency to fill the water quality information gap by setting standardized protocols for monitoring and modeling. States could then determine which water bodies are actually impaired, and why.
It’s too late ever to find out what our water quality was when Columbus landed in 1492, or how bad our water quality was in 1973, when we began the cleanup. But it’s past time to start comprehensive water quality monitoring—to pinpoint the real problems that remain in a much-improved water quality picture.
Besides, it’s the law. The Clean Water Act requires it. After thirty years, it’s time for us to comply.
This article appeared in the Knight Ridder Tribune on October 21, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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