05.16.13Kelly Duke

The Clean Water Act – Four Decades On

Flames on the surface of the Cuyahoga River caused by combustion of pollutants.Pollutants in Cleveland's Cuyahoga River left it susceptible to combustion on multiple occasions. Photo: Cleveland State University Library Special Collections

We are today in an era of perpetual governmental gridlock.  This has not always been the case.  In 1972 legislators on both sides of the isle had the courage to do what was right and not merely politically expedient.  It was then that the U.S. Congress enacted The Clean Water Act (CWA).

To pull this off, Congress had to go beyond a simple majority to muster sufficient votes to overcome Richard Nixon’s initial veto of the act.  The President’s veto was brought on by his concerns over the cost to update the nation’s infrastructure.

So what is the Clean Water Act?  In essence, it is broad legislation that makes it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable U.S. waters without a government-granted permit.  Further it establishes the limited types of discharges and limited circumstances under which any such discharges may be permitted.  The legislation built upon the earlier Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948.  The Clean Water Act reorganized the 1948 act’s scope and strength.  In addition, the Clean Water Act paved the way for added capacity and improved performance in municipal infrastructure and water treatment facilities.

In recent months America has awaited action from a dysfunctional congress faced, in turn, by a budgetary crisis, “Fiscal Cliff”, and a resulting ”Sequester”.  Congress today seems to favor rhetoric and posturing over meaningful action.  Conversely, the elected representatives of 1972 took the bold step to respond to the growing evidence of an “Environmental Cliff.”  Those of a certain age may recall the environmental failures of the post World War II era; trash-laden beaches, biologically dead rivers and lakes, Mercury in their tuna, contaminated drinking water, and periodic fires along Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.

Four decades later, Clean Water Act proponents can point to tremendous reduction in the discharge of untreated sewage or other pollutants into streams, rivers, or lakes.  Waters that once served as dumping grounds have been transformed into well stocked fisheries, waterfront parks, and viable wildlife habitat.

In spite of its undeniable success, there is room to improve The Clean Water Act.  In its present form the CWA is rather narrowly focused on commercial / industrial waste discharges.  Run off from agricultural land is largely unregulated.  As such many pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and fertilizers find their way into streams, rivers, lakes, and coastal waters.  Our evolving lifestyle has led to an up-tick in pharmaceutical compounds and personal care products finding their way into domestic drains.  Industrialized meat and poultry production has contirbuted animal wastes, antibiotics, and hormoes to the waste stream as well.  Most recently we have been confronted by the controversy over “Fracking”; the use of water to extract natural gas from U.S. and Canadian domestic geology.  Most of our current water treatment facilities are unable to intercept or neutralize this new wave of pollutant threats.

In an era of Congressional gridlock and politics-by-pandering, we can only hope that courage will return and logic prevail.  Until then it will likely fall upon motivated non-government activists to lead the charge.  Below is a small sampling of NGOs engaged in addressing those challenges government appears too paralyzed or pre-occupied to pursue:

  • Trout Unlimited – This group has united naturalists and ranchers to better manage agricultural run-off for the benefit of fresh water fisheries in Colorado (See prior post “But is it Art”).
  • Heal the Bay – Maintains a number of ongoing initiative to clean and protect California’s Santa Monica Bay.
  • Trust for Public Lands – Has funded a long-term initiative to clean and restore New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay and restricting mining and petroleum extraction beyond existing permits in Wyoming’s pristine Hoback Basin.
  • Water Reuse Association – This group, through its Water Reuse Foundation funds research to identify and assess emerging water quality issues, their impact, and mitigation.
  • Surfrider Foundation – A group dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of oceans, waves, and beaches.  The enjoyment of surfing that launched this group has evolved into broader environmental advocacy focused upon coastal waters.

Links to these and more (Domestic and International) can be found at the EcoGateway Link Center for Water and Wastewater.

 “Compare society to a boat. Her progress through the water will not depend upon the exertion of her crew, but upon the exertion devoted to propelling her. This will be lessened by any expenditure of force in fighting among themselves, or in pulling in different directions” – Henry George

 Kelly F. Duke

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Kelly Duke

Not many people can say that they have dedicated their life to the landscape industry. Kelly Duke can. His diverse background ranging from maintenance to estimating, to design, along with a passionate commitment to his trade has given Kelly a lifecycle perspective to landscaping. As the leader of the ValleyCrest’s Pre-Construction Services team, he analyzes early conceptual designs to determine whether or not and how they can be built within budget while meeting long-term design and maintenance goals. Many of the projects that come across Kelly’s desk require he examine the cost and savings of baseline water use in comparison to high efficiency alternatives.


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  1. Thursday, 4:00 DaveHedrickAZ

    RT @ValleyCrest: THE CLEAN WATER ACT – FOUR DECADES ON: We are today in an era o… #watermanagement

  2. Friday, 11:22 jimmyjazz182

    RT @ValleyCrest: THE CLEAN WATER ACT – FOUR DECADES ON: We are today in an era o… #watermanagement

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