New Report: Waterways Restored

In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed. Since then, its tools have been used to make important improvements to water quality at these 15 American waterways, among others.

Jeff Inglis

Policy Analyst

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire when sparks from a passing train ignited oil, chemicals and debris floating on the surface of the water. The local media was generally unfazed – the river had burned a dozen times over the previous century – but the flames caught the nation’s attention and helped galvanize a budding nationwide environmental movement, including the passage of the Clean Water Act.

Today, the river is substantially cleaner, safe enough for boating and fishing – though not yet for swimming.

Those improvements are thanks to the Clean Water Act, which was passed 42 years ago. Its combination of regulatory carrots and sticks offered financial assistance for pollution-prevention efforts, while also giving permission for citizens to sue when official enforcement doesn’t measure up. (When the Cuyahoga was dealt a setback with the recent revelation recently that BASF has been releasing radioactive waste into the river, the provisions of the Clean Water Act began forcing a cleanup there too.)

We still have not hit the Act’s goals of making all of America’s waterways clean enough for fishing, swimming and using as drinking water supplies by 1983 and stopping all direct waste discharges to water by 1985.

But over the years since its passage, when the Clean Water Act has been applied, it has helped substantially improve the quality of waterways all across America.

Our new report, Waterways Restored: The Clean Water Act’s Impact on 15 American Rivers, Lakes and Bays, showcases 15 cases – including the Cuyahoga – where the Act has made significant, measurable improvements.

These rivers, lakes and bays – and countless others like them around the nation – are a testament to the power of the Clean Water Act.

Sadly, the Act’s jurisdiction has been limited by Supreme Court decisions over the last decade. More than half of the country’s streams have had their protection reduced or called into question, and the drinking water supplies for as many as 117 million Americans are similarly vulnerable.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have proposed a rule that would restore protections to those waterways. If we are ever to realize the full potential of the Clean Water Act, finalizing that rule is an important first step.


Jeff Inglis

Policy Analyst