CWA at 50: Historic Achievement, What’s the Next Chapter of the Clean Water Act?

50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act
By Sara Sapirstein, CASA, Regulations, Wastewater News

Clean Water Act at 50 CWEAWith the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972, Congress provided billions of dollars in grants to local communities to construct or upgrade wastewater treatment facilities to meet secondary treatment standards. This investment allowed communities to reverse the impacts created by discharge of untreated wastewater, responding to what was then a significant threat to our nation’s waters and public health.

The Clean Water Act has been widely hailed as the nation’s most successful environmental statute. As we approach the Act’s 50th anniversary, this is a good time to reflect on the accomplishments and the challenges that still lie ahead.

Sara Sapirstein, CASA

Despite tremendous progress, water quality issues persist, and changes may be needed to achieve meaningful improvements in the years to come.

The law also led to the development and implementation of effluent discharge standards that required industrial dischargers to better control their wastewater and minimize harmful consequences to the environment.

The last fifty years of water quality improvements have been a remarkable success story. However, the next fifty years will present a host of new challenges, requiring innovative responses and a renewed partnership between local agencies and the federal government.

The challenges are many and diverse. They include:

  • Contaminants of emerging concern (CECs)
  • Incorporating resiliency into water infrastructure
  • Reducing plastic pollution in waterways
  • Delivering reliable and affordable water services to disadvantaged communities
  • Ensuring new investments to respond to a changing climate

The last significant update to the Clean Water Act occurred in 1987, when the factors impacting water quality were very different. We are now in need of a new paradigm for addressing water quality that diverges from the traditional approach, including funding to address high priority needs.

We need a system that emphasizes greater source control and pollution prevention measures and embraces innovative clean water infrastructure that leverages the benefits of technology to reduce costs and increase ecosystem and public health improvements.

The COVID-19 public health crisis underscores the vital role clean water agencies play in protecting public health, and also laid bare the reality that equal and affordable access to clean water services is not universal.

As the nation prepares for a historic federal reinvestment in the water infrastructure sector, the issue of environmental justice must be an important component of the overall approach. Just as the Clean Water Act was enacted to address the water quality threats of the 1970s, an equally robust commitment to address today’s access and affordability challenges must be a priority for future iterations.

When passed in 1972, the Act directed significant resources to treat “conventional” water pollution, and clean water agencies rose to meet the challenge.

Today, we have new and costly pollution challenges that go far beyond installing new treatment technologies. The continued introduction of CECs into our systems is a high priority, particularly contamination from the chemical family known as PFAS. These manufactured “forever chemicals” persist in the environment for centuries, and scientific evidence suggests they pose both public health and ecosystem threats when present at high levels.

Unfortunately, the technologies to combat these pollutants are limited and expensive. Solutions developed to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants must be designed with an emphasis on source control approaches and producer responsibility to reduce pressure on the already limited resources of public agencies.

Unlike 50 years ago, clean water agencies today do far more than simply treat and manage wastewater: they are also resource recovery facilities. Modern wastewater facilities can help mitigate the impacts of climate change by producing valuable renewable energy, transportation fuels, and helping divert organic waste.

We are also producers of recycled water, which in the arid west is an exceptionally important part of achieving a sustainable water portfolio. In California, increasingly severe droughts coupled with rising temperatures jeopardize water supply security and reliability, but clean water agencies can be part of the solution by increasing investment in water recycling.

The Clean Water Act should support these efforts to diversify water supplies and enhance resiliency, and central to this effort is a strong partnership between local utilities, states, and the federal government.

While we celebrate the important improvements in our nation’s waters thanks to this landmark legislation, these achievements are only the first chapter in a continuing story. As utilities strive to maintain high water quality standards, policymakers must work collaboratively to ensure that future policies are tailored to the needs of today and tomorrow.

Hopefully 50 years from now, we will be able to celebrate a new suite of clean water improvements.

Watch:  Panel of regulatory leaders explore and celebrate the CWA, learn about their vision for clean water going forward. Recorded during California Water Professionals Appreciation Week.