Clean Water Act, 40 years later

Posted: October 12, 2012

AS THE CLEAN WATER Act turns 40 this week, it is important to recognize the progress it fostered. In 1972, major urban rivers were noxious watercourses. It was normal practice to regard such waters as convenient conveyances to transport wastes of industries and cities, with little regard for ecological and human consequences.

The CWA had the ambitious goal of making all waters of the United States "fishable and swimmable." While we still not have achieved this 100 percent, there has been remarkable transformation. In many U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, urban rivers, streams and lakes are regarded as important amenities for which premium price for living in proximity is often commanded.

Could one have imagined sailing or kayaking in the Delaware 40 years ago? Who would have thought of fishing in the river?

Yet the work is not done. We have cleaned up the more obvious types and sources of pollution. But now we recognize the importance of protecting waters from toxic pollutants and nutrients.

We must restore rivers, lakes and streams to regain as much of their original ecological functioning as possible. These means we must control activity along their shorelines to allow equitable use of the value of the waters (for recreation, water supply, etc.) while providing habitat for the indigenous flora and fauna.

We now recognize the significance of pollutants from "nonpoint" sources, that is, water pollution that results from other than an observable pipe. This includes storm water, agricultural waste and construction runoff.

With tools and approaches under the CWA, we have made great strides. But we cannot give up vigilance, or else what we have gained will be lost.

Happy anniversary, Clean Water Act!

Charles N. Haas, L.D. Betz

Prof. of Environmental Engineering,

Head of the Department of Civil,

Architectural & Environmental

Engineering, Drexel University