By Kim du Buclet, Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District
October 18th marked the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Clean Water Act. This monumental piece of legislation has positively impacted millions of Americans since it was passed in 1972. 50 years ago, America’s waterways had such high levels of pollution that the water in many of these waterways was barely safe to drink. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted, that in 1969 because of all of the industrial pollution dumped in that waterway, it caught fire for the thirteenth time! The image of a major city’s river on fire due to industrial pollution finally brought national attention to the issue of the environment and how neglecting the environment greatly affects our health and well-being. That fire was a dramatic signal that something had to be done about toxic American water sources. As a result, Americans started to advocate for environmental reforms as it became clear about the negative impacts that unclean water can have on people’s health and our ecosystem. This public pressure culminated in the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
The Clean Water Act consisted of several amendments that made it illegal to discharge pollutants into navigable waters without a permit. Previously, companies dumped all sorts of toxic waste into rivers and lakes without consideration for what that would do to the local population’s health and safety. It also gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to decide on and enforce standards for pollution control and wastewater management. Previously, these issues were under the jurisdiction of local or state agencies, and in some cases, there was no water pollution regulation. The Clean Water Act also notably funded the construction of sewage treatment plants like the seven plants that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRDGC) operates in Cook County. Moreover, the number of water sources with safe drinking water has doubled since its passage. In a time of increasing droughts and other water-related concerns due to climate change, this encouraging transformation is an amazing improvement to Americans’ health and survival.
Echoes of the Clean Water Act can be seen today in new environmental legislation intended to keep up with our growing environmental concerns. President Biden in August signed The Inflation Reduction Act which invests billions in climate and energy spending to help slow the effects of climate change. Let’s celebrate this achievement and the historic passage of this legislation!