Wetlands

Photo: Kelly Fike/USFWS/Flickr

The legacy of clean water

On Oct. 18, 1972, the United States passed the landmark Clean Water Act. Crafted with the goal of ensuring that all U.S. waters — including these coastal wetlands seen at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Mass. — are "fishable and swimmable," the ambitious act has seen its fair share of successes and shortcomings in the past 40 years.

 

Before the CWA passed, only a third of all water in the country was safe for swimming and fishing. With rivers catching on fire and a massive die-off of fish populations due to pollution, environmental activists and average citizens alike pressured the government to pass what is touted as one of the most successful environmental laws in the country's history.

 

Following its enactment, the CWA made major gains in cleaning up U.S. water by cracking down on industrial polluters and wastewater treatment plants. In addition to ensuring the safety and cleanliness of our water sources, the CWA heralded the redevelopment of waterfront property and boosted the energy of the growing environmental movement.

 

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Starfish in a sea sponge

Photo: NOAA's National Ocean Service/Flickr

Taking a sponge bath

A pair of starfish lounge inside a sponge in Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, located off the coast of Georgia.

 

Regardless of its general success in cracking down industrial polluters, the CWA is still a major work in progress. The ambitious goal to bring the amount of polluted water down to 0 percent by 1985 has yet to be achieved — only 65 percent of all U.S. water is currently fit to swim and fish in today. In addition, the 40-year-old act is behind on the times in many ways, which enables tricky legal loopholes and ambiguities that could not have been predicted in the '70s.

 

Despite these shortcomings, there's no denying the invaluable progress the law has achieved in safeguarding one of the most vital resources on the planet.

 

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