Back to Reports

Waterways Restored:

The Clean Water Act's Impact on 15 American Rivers, Lakes and Bays

by Jeff Inglis, Tom Van Heeke, Gideon Weissman and Lindsey Hallock, Frontier Group; John Rumpler, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Executive Summary

In the early 1970s, many American rivers and streams were environmental basket cases – lined with industrial facilities dumping toxic pollution virtually unchecked, choked with untreated sewage and trash, and, in many cases, devoid of aquatic life.

In 2014, 42 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, many of these formerly degraded waterways are returning to health. From Puget Sound to Boston Harbor and from Monterey Bay to the Chattahoochee River, the Clean Water Act has played an essential role in restoring America’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters as sources of recreation, engines of economic development, and critical habitat for wildlife.

America has a long way to go to meet the goal of making every river, stream and lake in the United States safe for fishing and swimming. But the powerful tools provided by the Clean Water Act – limits on discharges by industrial polluters, waterway-wide standards to limit runoff pollution, funding programs to help communities clean up sewer discharges and more – are essential to that effort.

Because of the Clean Water Act’s protections and programs, waterways across the United States have been protected from pollution or restored to health. But Clean Water Act protection for many critical waterways is now in jeopardy. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers should finalize their proposed rule to restore Clean Water Act protections to thousands of America’s waterways.

When the Clean Water Act applies to waterways, it is a powerful and effective tool for improving water quality for humans and wildlife. The following case studies illustrate the many ways the Clean Water Act has helped American waterways.

Monterey Bay, California – Home to a national marine sanctuary known as the “Serengeti of the Sea” for its diversity of wildlife, Monterey Bay and its tributaries have long been threatened by the potential of runoff from rapid regional development. Funding made possible by the Clean Water Act helped conserve a key tract of land near the Bay – a step that will protect a global marine treasure.

Lake Lillinonah, Connecticut – This beautiful lake provides boating and fishing recreation. All of the state’s reservoirs, in addition to high quality trout streams and many other waterways, are protected from pollution running off of construction sites during storms thanks to the Clean Water Act’s requirement for public comments on pollution permits.

Chattahoochee River, Georgia – Sewage discharges from Atlanta fouled the Chattahoochee for decades, contaminating the river with floating feces and harmful bacteria, making recreation unsafe, and damaging fish and wildlife. Action taken under the Clean Water Act has resulted in Atlanta reducing its sewage discharges to the river by 99 percent, and wildlife is beginning to return, as are boating and fishing opportunities.

Apple River, Illinois – Citizens in Illinois rallied to protect a river flowing through natural canyons and a national park from efforts by an out-of-state businessman to build two factory farms within the river’s watershed. A dogged legal battle using the Clean Water Act stopped these polluting facilities from being completed, a victory for this local river.

Androscoggin River, Maine – Polluted by paper mills for more than a century, the Androscoggin once sported a layer of toxic foam described by a Maine farmer as “too thick to paddle, too thin to plow.” The Clean Water Act forced paper mills to clean up their discharges into the river. Within five years, oxygen levels in the river had rebounded to the point that the river was supporting aquatic life and today the river supports an active sport fishery.

Anacostia River, Maryland and the District of Columbia – Known as the “forgotten river” in the D.C. region compared with the higher-profile Potomac, the Anacostia River has suffered from horrific pollution for decades. Now action required by the Clean Water Act is reducing dumping of trash into the river, leading some to hope that it can be made safe for fishing and swimming in little more than a decade.

Boston Harbor, Massachusetts – Boston Harbor became a potent symbol of environmental degradation during the 1988 presidential campaign, following centuries of sewage dumping. Today, thanks to lawsuits filed under the Clean Water Act, Boston Harbor is home to some of the cleanest urban swimming beaches in America.

Powderhorn Lake, Minnesota – State and federal efforts under the Clean Water Act have helped stop runoff from polluting the lake by restoring natural vegetation on its banks, among other measures. This led to its recognition by one newspaper as “Minneapolis’ Best Lake” in 2013, thanks to its revived role as a centerpiece of the community.

Round Valley Reservoir, New Jersey – Sustained citizen effort over many years extended strong Clean Water Act protections to this drinking water supply and scenic recreation site and thousands of miles of other waterways around the state, preventing new sources of runoff pollution and direct discharges.

Hudson River, New York – Portions of this iconic waterway once changed color depending on the color of cars being made that day at an auto plant – just one of the Hudson’s many sources of industrial pollution. The Clean Water Act empowered local citizens to monitor and take action against industrial polluters lining the Hudson, helping lead to the return of fish and wildlife to the river.

North Fork First Broad River, North Carolina – A pristine river in western North Carolina that supports a native trout population is now protected by an “anti-degradation” designation under the Clean Water Act that bars new sources of pollution nearby.

Cuyahoga River, Ohio – Notorious for a 1969 river fire that helped spark the drive for the Clean Water Act itself, the Cuyahoga once received pollution from slaughterhouses, paint manufacturers, steel mills and sewage treatment plants. As a result of the Clean Water Act, communities along the Cuyahoga are reducing combined sewer overflows, aiding a rebound that has brought fishing and boating back to the river.

Willamette River, Oregon – Once so polluted that salmon fingerlings placed in the river died within 15 minutes, the Willamette River is on its way back to health, thanks in part to enforcement of water quality standards required by the Clean Water Act. Today, after 20 years of effort, the volume of sewage overflows to the river has been cut by 94 percent, allowing Oregonians to once again swim in the Willamette.

Conemaugh River, Pennsylvania – Massive pollution from a major coal-fired power plant will be cleaned up from the Conemaugh River under the settlement of a Clean Water Act lawsuit that limits discharges of metals and other pollution from the power plant. The lawsuit was filed under an important provision of the Act that allows citizens to take action against polluters even when state regulators fail to act.

Puget Sound, Washington – Stormwater runoff is a major source of pollution of Puget Sound, with the Northwest’s frequent rainstorms washing oil, grease, chemicals and heavy metals into the water. Efforts by local citizens groups under the Clean Water Act have forced countless industrial facilities to reduce the flow of toxic stormwater to the sound.

Clean Water Act protection has been essential for the restoration of countless waterways across the United States, and the Act remains a critical tool for confronting several of today’s major threats to our waterways – including runoff pollution from development and the direct dumping of pollution from industrial facilities and sewage treatment plants.

To meet the Clean Water Act’s promise of making all of America’s water safe for fishing and swimming, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers should finalize their proposed rule that would restore the Act’s protections to thousands of waterways across the nation.

In addition, state and federal enforcement of the Clean Water Act’s provisions should be strengthened, including by:

  • Ensuring that pollution permits have clear limits and no loopholes, are renewed on schedule, are strictly enforced, and have pollution levels ratcheted down over time, with the goal of achieving zero pollution discharge wherever possible.
  • Requiring that all facilities that threaten our waters with pollution – including factory farms – obtain permits with clear numeric pollution limits and enforceable standards.
  • Boldly and regularly applying other Clean Water Act tools to restore and protect America’s waters, such as demanding significant reductions in pollution discharges and extending anti-degradation designations to more waterways. 
Download EA_waterwaysrestored_scrn_110814.pdf