Editorial: 50 years later, the Clean Water Act is under assault
President Richard Nixon vetoed the Clean Water Act in 1972. But Congress overrode him on a bipartisan vote, and the landmark law to reverse the toxic degradation of U.S. rivers, lakes and streams took effect half a century ago today.
The law was inspired in part by the notorious 1969 Cuyahoga River fire in Ohio, in which the river itself, laden with oil and other industrial pollutants, went up in flames.
The model, though, was a California clean water law adopted the same year as the fire and the destructive Santa Barbara oil spill. The federal Clean Water Act has essentially the same goal as California’s Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act: to regulate the discharge of pollutants in order to safeguard the nation’s water supply for drinking, swimming and good health for human beings and the environment.
Progress has been unmistakable. It’s no longer possible for industry to legally dump solvents, chemicals and other waste into rivers and lakes and expect the rest of us to bear the cost in the form of poisonous waterways and cleanups. Rivers no longer catch fire. Harbors once again have fish, because the streams that feed them no longer bring untreated municipal waste or chemicals like PCBs. Many once-toxic streams are again swimmable.
Southern California’s survival does not require snuffing out salmon, Stocktonians or our neighbors in other parts of the state.
But not all. In California and much of the West, less ample and therefore slower moving water, together with hotter temperatures, have increased the growth of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria. These can release toxins and make sloughs and ponds poisonous to people who fish in or drink from them.
There is also a continuing assault from industry and its supporters in the political world. Former President Trump, for example, signed an executive order eliminating an Obama-era rule that makes clear that the act applies to western waterways that feed wetlands and major bodies of water during the rainy season but go dry in summer and fall. The act means little if it does not protect most of California, just because the hydrology here is different than in the wetter eastern part of the country.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that could jeopardize the act, at least to the extent that it protects sensitive wetlands. In Sackett vs. Environmental Protection Agency, owners of a plot of seasonal wetland in Idaho argue that the act applies only to the water in a wetland and not to the adjacent land from which the runoff comes. The court’s conservative majority may well agree, although questioning from the justices suggests that they may be skeptical of the plaintiffs’ interpretation.
President Trump’s directive to roll back key protections for the nation’s waters helps to crystallize California’s challenge in the Trump era — and points the way toward a workable strategy for preserving and promoting the state’s environmental values despite an administration that is pushing in the opposite direction.
Even if the court accepts the broader view of the Clean Water Act’s scope, the 50-year-old law should now be seen as only a starting point for necessary protection of the nation’s water. Things have changed in the last half-century, and water laws have to be updated to take into account climate change and the challenges of agricultural runoff. They have to take into account our deeper knowledge of the actual connections between all bodies of water, whether on the surface or underground, seasonal or year-round.
It took a long time for Americans to appreciate the damage they were doing to their water. The Cuyahoga caught fire repeatedly as far back as 1868. California’s rivers were devastated by hydraulic mining in a quest for gold and other minerals; there were few objections at the time. Pollution was widely seen as a sign of American civilization subduing a wild continent and putting it to use in the service of human wealth and progress. And besides, there was always another pond or stream to be used for drinking water.
But now we know more about the costs of environmental destruction. We can’t wait another 50 years before updating our laws to protect our water supply.
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