The Clean Water Act – Protecting Our Nation’s Waters for 49 Years

Before the Clean Water Act, our nation’s waters were in trouble. We were losing nearly half a million acres of wetlands annually. Lake Erie was considered functionally dead, thanks to industrial pollution, untreated sewage, and farm run-off. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire more than a dozen times in the century before the passage of the law. 

In 1972, Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the Clean Water Act which protects our lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, and bays from pollution and destruction. Forty-nine years later, this landmark law keeps 700 billion pounds of pollutants out of our waters annually, the rate of wetland loss has slowed dramatically, and the number of places that meet clean water goals nationwide has doubled. You can even eat fish from the Cuyahoga River.

common loon
Waters protected by the Clean Water Act provide critical wildlife habitat for species like the common loon. Credit: Waye Wetherbee/NWF Photo Contest.

But there is still a long way to go to achieve equitable access to drinkable, swimmable, fishable water for all – and time is of the essence. The previous administration left the Clean Water Act the weakest it’s ever been in history, threatening all the progress we’ve made over the past four decades and leaving our waters more vulnerable to the increasingly extreme weather climate change brings.

Now, the Biden Administration has a lot of cleaning up to do to get us back on track.

Restoring Clean Water Act Protections

river otters
River otter populations have rebounded since the Clean Water Act was passed, but they still face threats from habitat loss and water pollution. Credit: Nick Viani/NWF Photo Contest.

The most damaging attack on clean water was the Trump administration’s move to withdraw federal pollution protections from more than half our nation’s wetlands and millions of stream miles across the country – including the wetlands and streams that supply drinking water to millions of Americans. These wetlands and streams provide fish and wildlife habitat and absorb floodwaters – as much as one million gallons of water per acre – providing a natural protection made all the more crucial in the face of climate change. This protection is especially important to vulnerable communities that have historically been pushed to more flood prone areas.

The Trump administration’s rule denied federal protections to at least 76 percent of the waters previously considered to date under the rule. The rule is particularly harmful in arid states like New Mexico and Arizona, where nearly every one of over 1,500 streams assessed was found to be not covered by the current rule, because the rule determined they did not flow frequently enough. These streams are the headwaters of our more well-known, iconic waters.

gila trout
Streams that flow only after rain or snowfall sustain fisheries like the Gila trout, which is one of the rarest trout species in the United States, found in cold mountain streams and tributaries in Arizona and New Mexico that depend on the flow of constant, clean water from smaller upstream waters including ephemeral streams. Credit: Craig Springer/USFWS

This regulation also cleared the way for a massive mine’s plan to destroy 400 acres of previously protected wetlands, putting Okefenokee Swamp – an internationally recognized wetland – at risk. Additionally, the rule denied protections for roughly 200 acres of wetlands near the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.

Black bears are among the species of wildlife that call Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge home. Credit: Jacqueline Orsulak/NWF Photo Contest.

It also removed protections for the most important and threatened waterfowl habitat in North America – the Prairie Pothole Region in the Great Plains. When glaciers retreated over 10,000 years ago, they left millions of shallow depressions known as prairie potholes in their wake that are now valuable seasonal wetlands and home to more than half of North American migratory waterfowl. Today, less than half of the original pothole region remains undrained, in small, disconnected fragments that continue to face threats from drainage, development, and agricultural pollution.

Thankfully, as a result of court cases brought by six Tribes in Arizona and one brought by the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, the Trump rule was struck down in court, but the Biden administration still needs to remove all traces of the harmful rule and move swiftly to develop a more protective rule that helps achieve the foundational goals of the Clean Water Act. These goals are impossible to attain without protecting tributary streams from pollution or protecting the full range of all watersheds’ wetlands from being drained and filled.

redhead ducks in dense shallow marsh
Ducks like redheads rely on the prairie potholes for breeding, feeding, and nesting, where they build nests in dense marshes above shallow water. Credit: Monica Fowler/NWF photo contest

To prevent further destruction and continue the progress made since the passage of the Clean Water Act 49 years ago, we need to restore and strengthen Clean Water Act protections – from the smallest headwaters at the top of the watershed, to the mightiest rivers and largest lakes downstream. Clean drinking water, safe recreation and fishing, community resilience to floods and droughts, and healthy habitat for wildlife depend on it.

From removing longstanding pollution protections from over half of the nation’s wetlands and streams to giving polluters like hog farms, factories, and sewage plants a free pass to dump waste into the ground – even if this pollution would make its way into rivers and streams – the past four years threaten all the progress made in over four decades.

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