Taking Back the Act: The Clean Water Act at 50

A look at how far we’ve come in cleaning up Northwest Washington’s waters, and at how far we have to go. | March 21, 2022

2022 marks both RE Sources’ 40th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act (CWA). In 1972, the United States Congress passed the CWA with the goal of controlling toxic pollution to support swimmable, fishable and drinkable water resources for all. The Waterkeeper Alliance emerged as a national (and now international) network of local advocates fighting toward this ideal for their homewaters by leveraging the legal weight of the CWA.

RE Sources was founded as the Bellingham Community Recycling in 1982, part of the same decade-long thrust to take action and address ubiquitous trash and pollution. We grew organically through the years, adding programs and initiatives in response to our community’s most pressing needs. More than 20 years ago, RE Sources joined the Waterkeeper Alliance by incorporating the North Sound Baykeeper. Alongside over 300 Waterkeeper groups worldwide, RE Sources’ North Sound Baykeeper advocates for the Salish Sea and waters that flow into it. Looking back on past 50 years offers insight on how bold environmental policy can drive local change, and how the fight for clean water continues today.

A Water Pollution Crisis

The year was 1972. Bell bottoms and jumpsuits were all the rage, gas sold for 55 cents a gallon and the last American ground troops withdrew from Vietnam. Pollution from industrial activity, raw sewage and garbage was reaching a state of crisis.

Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River famously was so saturated with oily debris and industrial pollution that it caught fire in 1969 (one of 13 times it happened!). The fire drew national attention to rampant pollution in waterways across the country – it was estimated that only one third of the nation’s rivers were safe for fishing and swimming. Public outcry prompted legislators to pass the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

One of the EPA’s first efforts was to put forth the Clean Water Act, which stipulated that toxic pollution must be controlled to support swimmable, fishable and drinkable water resources for all by 1982. As part of the Act, states are responsible for setting water quality standards designed to “protect public health or welfare, enhance the quality of water and serve the purposes of the Clean Water Act.”

Thousands of miles from the Cuyahoga, Pacific Northwest cities and towns grappled with industrial pollution in their own rivers, lakes and shores. Northwest Washington – and the Bellingham waterfront in particular – became an economic hub for processing timber, paper and salmon. Bellingham at one time boasted the largest wood shingle mill and the largest salmon cannery in the world. Transporting timber, along with the freshwater needed for milling and processing, dramatically altered the watersheds of both the Nooksack River and Lake Whatcom.

Bellingham Harbor filled with logs, circa 1972

According to the Port of Bellingham, Until the 1970s, industrial activities on the waterfront went largely unregulated, and there was little awareness about potential threats of these activities to human health and the environment. Fuel was spilled. Chemicals were released into the land and water. Trash was dumped along the shoreline, and when fishermen complained of garbage in their nets, the waste was confined onto the mud flats, and new industrial land was created.

The Clean Water Act prompted waterfront businesses to clean up their acts, but by then, they had already contaminated the water and sediment with pollution, including mercury and other heavy metals. We are still addressing this toxic legacy as a community today, long after most natural resource-based industries have left the waterfront. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be if the CWA hadn’t addressed point-source pollution (pollution from a single source, such as an effluent pipe from a factory leading to the bay) half a century ago.

One of America’s most successful environmental laws

Beyond addressing industrial pollution, we owe the CWA for standards of water quality that help keep us from getting sick, either from water directly or from fish and seafood that accumulate toxic chemicals from water. Under the CWA, each state is responsible for setting its own water quality standards. While they aren’t perfect, the State of Washington’s strong water standards undergird the legal power of the CWA. This proved critical in recent years when the Trump administration’s EPA set out to roll back CWA protections to lower quality standards required by the state and alter the long standing definition for Waters of the United States. RE Sources, Waterkeepers and partners like Earthjustice were able to defend against these reckless rollbacks.

In addition, the Clean Water Act provided a game-changing, democratizing mechanism for ensuring that water quality could be defended across the country: the citizen suit. Lawmakers recognized that no state agency has the resources to conduct regular water quality monitoring on every water body in their state, so citizen involvement in monitoring and reporting pollution problems would be key to protecting our waters. Section 505 of the CWA allows any citizen or organization to bring a lawsuit to stop illegal pollution discharges. While RE Sources views litigation as a last resort, we have filed suits to stop pollution and hold polluters accountable throughout our history, and we remain ready to use that tool if necessary. Waterkeeper organizations across the country have stopped countless sources of toxic pollution through citizen suits.

Time to be bold again

In the 50 years since the CWA put sweeping environmental protections in place, we find ourselves at a new crossroads. Many people (including this author) weren’t even born when the Clean Water Act was enacted. We struggle to even imagine what it must be like for Congress to pass a sweeping, comprehensive environmental policy that actually defends the health of our communities, lands and waters over the interests of corporate polluters.

It wasn’t exactly a cake walk in 1972 either. President Richard Nixon initially vetoed the Clean Water Act, voicing concerns that the bill was just too expensive to pass amid spiraling prices (gee, that sounds familiar). The final bill was also the result of a compromise that emerged after the legislation spent 10 months stuck in conference. In the end though, the law was passed, and many of our nation’s rivers made astounding recoveries from intense contamination.

Today, we’re grappling with the stark possibility that without bold action, our global climate could destabilize past the point of no return, imperiling not only our rivers, lakes and seas, but virtually every ecosystem and human community across the globe. Once again, industry lobbyists and politicians are arguing that protecting our life support system of waters, lands and climate is too expensive at this moment in time. We argue that it’s too expensive – and too important – not to.

The work of ensuring drinkable, swimmable, fishable waters continues

Two people in a kayak on the water. Behind them is a small beach and a large rusty metal sphere, a relic of old waterfront industry.
Orca Month Kayak Paddle and tour of Bellingham’s Waterfront District

As we survey the current state of the Salish Sea and our lakes, streams and rivers, we are grateful for the bold vision and impact of the Clean Water Act. At the same time, we and Waterkeeper organizations across the country also see this year’s anniversary as a call to redouble our efforts. While polluted rivers and bays saw major improvements in the two decades following the passage of the CWA, we never reached the ambitious goal of restoring all of the nation’s waterways to swimmable, fishable conditions.

Protecting and restoring our waters into the next fifty years will require fulling implementing the foundational CWA, as well as crafting new, stronger water protections. Today’s challenges around water quality are complex and interconnected, and they demand a renewed groundswell of support for transformative policies and investments.

Because of an ongoing legacy of environmental racism, race is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in the United States today. The negative health impacts of water pollution, as well as air pollution, are disproportionately concentrated in communities of color. Now and moving forward into the next half-century, ensuring healthy waters for all must mean prioritizing cleanups and water infrastructure investments in these same communities.

Looking forward, our clean water efforts are largely focused on:

Toxic site cleanups

Ongoing clean-ups of toxic contaminants left behind as part of Bellingham Bay’s industrial legacy, a process guided by the Model Toxic Control Act (MTCA) and managed by the Department of Ecology (a process you have a say in!). RE Sources is working on MTCA rulemaking updates, specifically focused to make sure climate change is considered and disproportionately impacted communities are prioritized moving forward in this process.

Stormwater

Also known as toxic runoff and nonpoint-source water pollution, stormwater is essentially comprised of all the chemicals and excess nutrients that rainwater picks up as it travels from roofs, driveways, roads and other impervious surfaces downhill to our streams, rivers, lakes and seas. As our region’s population grows, development pressure increases, often leading to more impervious surfaces and more potential sources of pollution, from motor oil leaks to lawn fertilizers. RE Sources is focused on protecting the drinking water source for more than 100,000 people in Lake Whatcom, an impaired water body that suffers from excess phosphorus and other other pollution. We also recently completed a year-long monitoring project to assess the quality of water entering Bellingham Bay at eight locations, seven of which require attention or continued monitoring.

Wastewater and excess nutrients

Wastewater is a usual source of excessive nutrients that increases as the population continues to grow. By supporting things like the Puget Sound No Discharge Zone for boaters and ensuring strong municipal wastewater pollution discharge permits, we tackle some of the more significant sources of nutrients that contribute to things like algal blooms that can be toxic and cause low oxygen and acidification that makes it hard for shellfish to form their shells.

Plastics

Plastics are a growing issue. We address plastics through many ways, including hosting regular shoreline cleanups. At several cleanups each year, we go a step further and collect data using the EPA approved Escaped Trash Assessment Protocols (ETAP). With these protocols, we can build cases for how plastics are polluting our waterways to then set regulations to address plastic pollution in our waterways following the CWA structure for impaired water bodies. In 2021, RE Sources also helped cut single-use plastics in Bellingham through passage of a stronger city-wide policy, even stronger than state plastic rules.

Pollution Patrols and Hotline

North Sound Baykeeper has its origins starting more than 20 years ago with kayak patrols on the Bay to identify and stop cancer-causing pollution from entering our water. While we still keep an eye out for possible pollution issues, we also host a hotline (360-220-0556) and the Water Reporter App so community members can also report potential pollution issues for follow up.

Watchdogging Permits

Permits and other technical documents periodically come out for public comment. We keep an eye on these and submit public comments to ensure the CWA is being upheld. We also review publicly available records when we identify pollution issues to see if there is a history of water quality violations.

Climate Change

Beyond the kinds of pollution the Clean Water Act set out to address, climate change is a threat multiplier for the health of our waters. By increasing water temperatures, contributing to stream flow extremes (not enough water during droughts and way too much during floods) and increasing acidity levels in our oceans, climate change makes life harder for our region’s freshwater and saltwater organisms, from oysters to orca. Nutrient pollution levels that may have been tolerable in the past are now leading to deadly toxic algal blooms in warmer waters. Moreover, climate change increases risk of disease and illness spreading, including increased risk of bacteria that can close shellfish beds or close beaches for swimming. For these reasons, we pursue ways to accelerate a just, clean energy transition and climate resilience solutions in concert with water protections.

Renewing the call to action

We’ve turned environmental crises into sweeping change before. We can do it again, but it’s going to take all of us. As part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, RE Sources offers several ways for you to get involved today:

  1. Advocate for stronger climate and water policy. Sign up for our Action Alerts to make sure you never miss a local advocacy opportunity.
  2. Download the Water Reporter app and do your part to identify and stop pollution.
  3. Throw on some boots and clean up a beach, river or lake at one of our monthly clean-ups.
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