Imagine paddling a canoe upstream forever. That’s my metaphor for environmental activism. Activists have been paddling against the current with the Clean Water Act on their backs ever since its passage 50 years ago. We have made a lot of progress, but it’s been against the current the whole time—and we are still paddling.
The First 20 Words of the Clean Water Act
The objective of this chapter is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.
The main goal of the Clean Water Act in 1972 was to cease industrial and municipal point source water pollution without a permit imposing limits on what can be discharged. Point source water pollution is basically a discharge into a waterway from a pipe. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, all point sources of water pollution must be permitted; if they are not permitted, they are illegal. This monumental achievement was accomplished through cooperative federalism. That’s the process through which federal and state governments work in partnership to solve problems. In this case, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows state agencies to administer the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit process.
I was a sophomore in high school when the Clean Water Act became law in 1972. I can say without hesitation that our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay are cleaner and healthier than they were then. But, and that’s a big but, it didn’t happen without constant pressure from the environmental community. Every inch of progress toward cleaner water in this nation has been made with strength and endurance against a current of politics fueled by greed and power. A classic example of that work is the passage of the Clean Water Act itself and its subsequent implementation.
Nixon Vetoes the Clean Water Act
President Richard Nixon had had 10 days to sign the Federal Water Pollution Act. He vetoed it just before midnight on October 17, 1972, and Congress was to adjourn the next day. That allowed only one day for both the Senate and the House to override his veto and pass the bill without his signature. If they couldn’t do it—with a two-thirds vote from both chambers—the bill would die.
Nixon said he vetoed the bill because of its $24.6 billion price tag. He felt it was too expensive for the country. His administrator for the EPA, William D. Ruckelshaus recommended passage of the bill and the funding in a memo to the head of the Office of Management and Budget. “It seems reasonable to me,” he wrote, “to spend less than one percent of the Federal budget and .2 percent of the Gross National Product over the next several years to assure for future generations the very survival of the Gross National Product.”
The next day Congress overwhelmingly overrode that veto, and the bill, now known as the Clean Water Act of 1972, became law.
Nixon Impounds EPA’s Funds
Frustrated that Congress overrode his veto and displeased with the price tag of the bill, the president refused to allocate the money. He impounded it instead! (Congress passed the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 in response to his actions.)
The City of New York and other municipalities in dire need of funding for wastewater treatment sued the EPA for not allocating the money.
It took two years of litigation for the case, Train v. City of New York, to reach the Supreme Court of the United States in 1974. By that time Nixon had resigned as president over the Watergate scandal. (Recall that Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned over tax evasion and corruption on October 10, 1973, Gerald Ford was appointed to replace him and then became president when Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974.)
SCOTUS ruled unanimously on February 18, 1975. The president cannot impede the will of Congress by impounding funds it expressly allocated.
WOTUS Definition Remains Ephemeral
Ever since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, we have been struggling, paddling upstream, to define the waters of the United States (WOTUS). Just how far upstream does the federal government have jurisdiction to prevent pollution? The executive branch has been rewriting the rule with each passing administration. Democrats argue “not far enough” as with the Obama administration rule and Republicans argue “too far” as with the Trump administration rule. The Supreme Court has heard arguments over the definition several times. The rule has been remanded back to the EPA and the Corps of Engineers to clarify. Until then the pre-2015 rule stands.
The Final Paddle—Nonpoint Source Water Pollution
Nonpoint source pollution is now the leading cause of pollution in the nation’s waters. This pollution comes from many sources such as urban stormwater runoff, poorly managed farmland, and the deposition on the water of contaminants from the air. Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act mandates that states identify polluted (impaired) streams and develop plans to remove them from what is often called the state’s “dirty waters list.” Those plans are called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL). These are basically pollution diets that limit the amount of pollution that can enter a stream.
The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint
The nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, is on the dirty waters list. It’s polluted by too much nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. The plan to reduce those pollutants from the 64,000-square-mile, six-state watershed is called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. It’s our TMDL. We are still paddling upstream since it was approved by the EPA in December 2010. Deep-pocketed polluters sued the EPA over the plan but lost after five years of appeals that ended up on the steps of the Supreme Court, which refused to hear American Farm Bureau v. EPA. The ruling from the lower courts stands. The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is the law of the land.
Get in the Boat and Help Us Paddle
To find out what you can do to help clean up the waters of the United States or the stream in your backyard, contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District.
If you suspect a violation of a point source water pollution permit, report it to your local waterkeeper or the Waterkeeper Alliance immediately.
I was aware that water pollution was a major global problem, but I was not aware of the problems arising in my own backyard. Our local watershed, the Chesapeake Bay, is not only the nation’s largest estuary but is on the dirty list throughout multiple states. The survival of our nation’s future generations is a priority for environmental activists. Reading blog posts like these motivates me to start helping in my daily life. Daily reminders like to pick up litter you see and throw it away in a garbage can. If you cannot compost your waste, do not dispose into public areas such as streets. Changes in one’s everyday life can help impact the future of our Earth.
Very nice comment, Erin. Thank you.
I think it is so interesting, and terrifying, to know that so many different things can pollute water. Point source pollution may have been curbed, but that is not the only threat to our water. It is unfortunate that our water is threatened in so many different ways; however, it is encouraging to know that something as seemingly simple as planting more trees can aid in the cleaning of our water.
Victoria, I totally agree. Thank you.
The extent of water pollution is astonishing and the fact our government is letting politics decide the future of our environment is absurd. I understand budgeting may be difficult however, how is it so difficult for some to see the impact the choices regarding our environment impacts everyone? Shedding light on this issue is so important because people don’t realize how critical this issue is and need to be informed. I basically grew up on the Chesapeake Bay so to hear about a place which is so dear to me is so upsetting and really drives the fact I want to help. Planting trees is an amazing start but I want to do more!
Rhyan, I know it is confusing but the Chesapeake Bay is much cleaner today than it was in the 60’s. It’s cleaner because of activism from people like you.
I didn’t realize how polluted the Chesapeake Bay was back then and how it’s still on this list for being the dirtiest list. My daily social media outlets haven’t heard much about the issue. This shows me how I’m unaware of what’s going on with the environment around me. I think we need to spread more awareness and do our part as a community to make the environment better. One way that I think we could spread awareness is by having educational environmental programs to spread the word!
Tiana, you are so right. Thank you.
Before this blog, I wasn’t familiar with non-point source pollution and the problem it inflicts on our most precious resource; I was, however, somewhat familiar with the global water pollution crisis and concur with those who advocate for water and ecosystem preservation. This blog also gave me a refresher on the progress the United States has made in its pursuit of preserving our environment. Still, it’s mind-boggling how simple legislation that benefits everyone and their future generations continues to face bipartisan gridlock. I hope we continue to move towards environmentally progressive policies and all do better as individuals to mitigate the waste that contaminates our water.
Yes, Shreyas. I agree. And how about the recently passed IRA?
I know water pollution has been a problem that is not always avoidable, but it is frustrating to learn how divided the government has been in their stances. I would have thought that keeping water clean would be a unanimous goal, not something to be debated. I certainly understand that there is a lot of liquid waste in this country and that it needs to go somewhere, but I’m surprised there isn’t a consensus on how to tackle this problem without resorting to dumping it into open, public waters. It seems there are other solutions that not only can have short term benefits, but long term benefits as well. It’s one thing to know you have a problem and not know how to solve it, but it is another thing continue to perpetrate the issue. After reading this page, I can certainly see how it has been an uphill battle, and that activism and public support is the best way to speak out and produce change. This holds deep value because it truly is an important issue, and if we can neglect clean water, that only speaks to what other standards we can let slip.
Well said, Alex. Thank you.
It was very interesting to learn about the role that the government has in the future of our country’s natural resources and land. I was not aware of the non-point pollutants that impact our water systems so drastically. However, I do have some experience in researching how to limit the pollutants entering our water system through planting plants. In high school, I was in an independent research program where my lab partner and I tested plants and their impact on decreasing the pollution going into the Potomac river. This was my first introduction to how to decrease the pollutants going into the water. This article was a great read because it connected the findings of our research while combining how the government influences water pollution. It is heartbreaking to see how political environmentalism is and how it prevents legislation from being passed. I am hopeful that this generation of people will be more open to prioritizing the protection of our environment.
Good comments, Katie. And good on you for your research.
Before reading this, I knew about the passage of the Clean Water Act and how nonpoint source pollution is currently the leading cause of water pollution, but I did not know how much politics had, and currently does, play a part in protecting our waterways. I find it alarming that neither party can agree on even a compromise, seeing as a solution that changes every four or so years is not going to cause any real results. However, it is good to know that we have come further in protecting waterways, such as the Chesapeake Bay, even if there is still work to be done.
Nicely done, Sarah. See you tomorrow.
I was aware of the importance of the Clean Water Act more from a legal perspective prior to reading this article, but I was not aware of the specific issues its provisions look to combat and how those needs have evolved over time, specifically in terms of point versus non-point source pollution. I was additionally unaware of the significance of the Chesapeake Bay as the nation’s largest estuary or just how dire the situation was in that body. While the large roadblocks to both the Clean Water Act and other forms of water protection have set back progress, this article greatly details the ways in which activists have been able to circumvent and overcome these struggles as well as the path forward for this work.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly a non-controversial, evident crisis can be turned into a partisan issue when money is involved. The health of our watersheds affects the well-being of all Americans and should have always been at the top of our priority list. Despite the blunders of the Nixon administration, it gives me hope to see how far we have come in our environmental policies, specifically those that aided the ongoing recovery of the Chesapeake bay. I think that hope can extend to other environmental issues that may seem too broad to tackle or too far gone. If we can keep pushing, paddling upstream, then we may begin to see progress against the issues that now seem so grim.
I always knew that politics made money difficult, but never knew the lengths that Nixon went to in order to stop critical environmental funds. Before reading this, I had no idea that states had their own “dirty water’ s list” and was even more shocked to know that the Chesapeake Bay is a part of this list. Not only is this significant because it is OUR watershed, but the fact that the nation’s biggest estuary is on the list should raise nationwide attention to the issue. I just read an article right before this post about how a Greenland ice sheet is set to raise sea levels by almost a whole foot. Nationwide attention helped pass the Clean Water Act and it is the solution to continue the fight.
Through this blog post, I learned about how important point source water and non point source water sources are and how there must be “tabs” kept on both of them (TMDLs) to ensure the water is not overpowered by pollutants and overall pollution is decreased. Towards the end of this blog post, I was really encouraged specifically by the direction that the Chesapeake Bay was going by the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, however; through the post, I was surprised by how much criticism and backlash was given by “deep pocketed polluters” and politicians. I think that, of course, money is the main factor to explain why one would vote against “cleaner” policies, but also believe that the less money we invest in our environment through policies like the Clean Water Act of 1972 or the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, the more degradation to our environment will occur. Since pollution and environmental harm is often so incremental, it is important to spread awareness on the various major harms like non-point/point source water sources, to educate others on how major environmental hot topics, like climate change/rising sea level, occur because of decades of unchecked disregard for the environment.
It is evident that more priority must be given to environmental efforts by the government, and that allowing polluting corporations to have this much of a say in how our government conducts policy would enable them to maximize profits over the welfare of our water sources. The constant back and forth of the political cycle is clearly not helping either, as a plan this complicated and necessary requires constant vigilance and protection by environmentalists unless it gets dismantled by the next president that takes the majority of their funding from massively polluting businesses. I’m not sure how the policies of the Clean Water Act can be more entrenched into law so they are less changeable, but until then there will always be the push and pull of politics, which means that constant pressure must be applied or else things can quickly go awry.
It is easy to see how frustrating the push and pull of politics is on those that want to protect the planet against pollution, especially to such an important environmental feature as our water system. When the government takes larger notice of polluting and immoral companies over those that want to protect what we already have, the short-term benefits are vastly outweighed by the long-term consequences. Creating lasting policy is difficult in America, but it is even more difficult when it is as politicized as the Clean Water Act, with every president attempting to either expand it or restrict it. With this many policy changes in such a short time, it is clear that environmentalists must keep up the constant pressure unless everything were to go awry as soon as the next presidential cycle is over. If only there was some way to more deeply “entrench” a policy into the political system without making it an entire amendment to the constitution, which probably wouldn’t be a good place for environmental law.
This blog was really interesting because in the past I have never really dug into the Clean Water Act and its upbringing. I learned about President Nixon’s delay on the approval of this new water act, and that Nixon also impounded allocated funds for the Environmental Protection Agency. This blog showed that governmental hesitations and lack of governmental involvement really stalled how environmental policies. The Chesapeake Bay also was a chunk of this blog post also, stating that it was on the “dirty water list” because it was polluted with too much nitrogen, sediment, and phosphorus. All of these pollutions in the Chesapeake affects water supply and affects the marine life habitat. On a positive note, it was nice to see that the Chesapeake Bay was getting cleaner, and this may be due to the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Overall this blog shows why as a society and community, we should pay more attention and participate in making our environment better.
I was personally very surprised to hear about the fact that our present waters are cleaner than they were prior to the Clean Water Act. Considering that environmentalism is one of the most pressing issues of this decade, it is easy to assume that we have reached a “point of no returns”, when in reality, we are better off than we were prior, which shows that activism is not as useless as many cynical individuals claim. It also calls into question how valid the financial concerns are when people argue against environmental reform. One of the biggest issues against environmental reform tends to always reference how expensive reform would be, that it is not worth it, that we must consider the economy, etc. Nixon tried to refuse to allocate funds, claiming it is too expensive. However, when considering the overall budget, it tends to be a very small percent of the budget, and continued ignorance of environmental degradation will only continue the “uphill stream”, because it continues to minimize efforts made by policy reform and activism.
Prior to reading this article, I was unaware of the headache President Nixon caused the environmental community. I knew he was a very distasteful president but I did not know he delayed the passage of the Clean Water Act. Furthermore, I was not aware of nonpoint source pollution as being a real threat. My town faces a large issue when it rains, the river water becomes extremely muddy. I never knew this was technically considered pollution. The area around the river has very steep muddy slopes which definitely contribute to the pollution of the river. I will have to look into the plans that my town manager has to address the issue (or at least hope he has plans). Lastly, I found the part about the pollution levels of the Chesapeake Bay to be surprising. My family does a lot of fishing out in the bay and I never knew just how dirty the water had actually become. I will have to read more about this!
I think that it is hard to believe that the president of the United States would attempt to veto, and then block funding for something that would be very useful in saving watersheds and bodies of water throughout the country. But this is also nothing out of the ordinary when it comes to politics: the second money gets involved, it becomes this big deal, unless the money being spent benefits them in some large way.
I think the first thing I think of when I hear water pollution is that first photo, with the dirty water being released directly into a stream. Thats peculiar that the point source water pollution I think of and I remember from my early education years, has been illegal for fifty years. I remember hearing in a class that lack of communication was one of the reasons climate change is such a big issue. Environmental scholars are unable to properly communicate findings in a language that most Americans can understand, perhaps my understanding of water pollution is related to this communication error that is affecting the progress of fighting climate change. Perfecting communication and updating education and teaching methods must be the first step before we as a nation can address climate change.
Louis, good comments. I agree. Climate change is a tough one, for one thing, we can’t see greenhouse gasses. We can see the effects of them but people tend to discount things they can’t see. We can see pollution coming out of a pipe. Non-point source water pollution is similar to that in that some people can’t see it.
I remember not too long ago seeing a tik tok of lakes, streams and other water bodies before the clean water act and was shocked to see how dirty/polluted they were. I feel like growing up we never knew that and just assumed the state of where we are now is the best it could be and its more of a “it is what it is,” but the goal was to prevent further damage. Knowing what it was before and the drastic improvements that can be made inspires me because I see nature really can fix itself if we do our duty to protect it. I feel like if more of my generation knew that they would be less hopeless and more would really demand more changes like The Clean Water Act.
Felicity, I do have hope. We just passed the largest climate action bill on Earth.
Its shocking to learn how close the clean water act was to not being passed and how Nixon played a key role in making that the case. I did not know much about how the clean water act was passed and how difficult it was to see the bill through and actually get the positive affects intended by it. It was also interesting to learn about WOTUS. I never really considered the controversy that would surround how far upstream access is needed in order to ward off pollution and how this could directly affect the Chesapeake bay watershed. I did not know much about the Chesapeake watershed as I’m not from Virginia or Maryland but its interesting to consider the affect that it has on our area and the damage that the pollution in those waters is doing.
Michaela, we will talk more about WOTUS.
It is incredibly sad to me that our country has continued to prioritize money over our Planet’s wellbeing. Hearing that Nixon tried several times to stop progression in the movement to protect our Earth is extremely disheartening, I never knew about that. I’m glad to see since then that we have made steps to do better, and I hope we can continue to do so moving forward because there is a lot to be done.
Rylee, good comment. After Nixon impounded the funds for the CWA, Congress passed a law that keeps presidents from doing that.
I think so often that when we talk about the fight to end a particular struggle, or at least remedy it, we turn to pessimism knowing how hard it can be to push something through legislation, or effectively use bureaucracy to the advantage of good. What this post and all conversations I’ve heard about environmental activism and work is that despite the challenges, there is always optimism and an imperative to do good. I believe it speaks to our understanding of self preservation– for ourselves but also for our children and the children of our families, colleagues, friends, knowing that we need to leave them a better world to live in than the one we inherited. With the right strategy, whether that’s framing the solution as being cost effective and worthy of fund allocation, or compelling our legislators and administrators to express empathy for future generations, or even slowing the process of building harmful additions to our landscape like the ACP, the fight for the environment will always be a worthy one.
Spot on, Laura!
It amazes me that topics such as global warming or water pollution become glossed over or afterthoughts by the average individual although the repercussions are very serious. i read and know about the clean water act from previous POSC courses but what i truly did not know was just how close the bill came from not being passed. The idea of our president doing everything in his power to deny and delay this act was/is a concept i can not understand
Chris, Nixon did not sign the bill but it was overwhelmingly passed by Congress without the presidents signature.