Reclaiming Our Right to Clean Water

by Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director, Waterkeepers Chesapeake

Waterkeepers Chesapeake launches Clean Water Act 50th Anniversary Campaign for equal justice and access to clean water

Access to clean, safe water is a critical human right. Nearly 50 years ago, the U.S. recognized this and cemented its reputation as an international leader for protecting its water resources when it passed the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA established a goal of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters for the use and benefit of every American. Since its passage in 1972, the levels of pollution in the United States have experienced a dramatic decrease. This powerful tool ended the culture of dumping raw sewage and untreated industrial waste into our waters and led to a dramatic improvement in the health and safety of waterways across the country, particularly in the law’s early years.

Over the last decade, 25% of all citizen suits in the United States were brought by Waterkeepers.
The Clean Water Act led to massive investment in sewage infrastructure and better regulation of a host of pollutants. Notably, the CWA gives every person the right to enforce the law when the government fails to protect clean water. Local Waterkeepers across our region have used the Clean Water Act to stop stormwater pollution, to prevent the destruction of wetlands, to end toxic discharges from industrial operations, and to set water quality standards that ensure our rivers protect wildlife and are safe for people to use and enjoy. In fact, over the last decade, 25% of all citizen suits in the United States were brought by Waterkeepers.

More than 60 percent of our local rivers and streams are not meeting basic state water quality standards.
All of these victories and investments had myriad benefits in addition to protection of wildlife — public health improvements for swimmers, kayakers, and sustenance fishermen; economic benefits of restored fisheries and tourism; and even increased home values in neighborhoods near cleaner waters. Even with all these improvements, however, the full promise of the CWA remains unfulfilled. The CWA had ambitious goals to achieve fishable-swimmable waters by 1983, and the elimination of all discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters by 1985! Yet today, more than half of U.S. streams and rivers continue to violate water quality standards, as do roughly 70 percent of lakes, ponds and reservoirs, and 90 percent of the surveyed ocean and near-coastal waters. In the Chesapeake Bay region, more than 60 percent of our local rivers and streams are not meeting basic state water quality standards.

2022 marks a monument year in which we can celebrate the power and promise of this revolutionary law to protect communities around the country, and specifically in the Chesapeake region. We have designed a campaign to connect the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act with the role that everyday people can play in enforcing the laws that protect our environment and the health of our communities and families, and establish the public policies needed when the existing ones fall short. Our regulatory system is not structured with a focus on keeping communities healthy, but rather on the health of the economy and the profit margins of corporations. We want to flip that pattern on its head, building out mechanisms to ensure that the implementation of the Clean Water Act is community-focused.

We advocates for clean water have too often failed to meaningfully imbue environmental justice into how we approach and carry out our work, and we are now working to shift this problematic paradigm. Every community, regardless of its size and economic standing, deserves access to safe water. Through the Clean Water Act 50th Anniversary campaign, we are focusing on how water issues affect people in their communities. We are connecting the inextricably intertwined challenges of clean water, climate change, and economic, environmental, and social injustice. And we are centralizing how enforcing clean water laws—something that anyone can do if they are empowered—is a key to environmental justice for the low-income and minority communities that often face disproportionately high pollutant exposures. By celebrating the progress under the CWA and highlighting the need for environmental equity, we will foster relationships across movements, create a new generation of environmental justice leaders to address water pollution over the years to come, and build upon the Clean Water Act’s successes to fulfill its promise for every community.

Our campaign is lifting up the stories of environmental justice warriors and the barriers they face, and designing Clean Water Act enforcement resources for community members. By listening to communities, we will learn how they’ve been harmed by pollution and collaboratively design strategies—including and beyond the Clean Water Act—to reduce all sources of pollution that will improve water quality. Together, we will develop Clean Water Platforms for community leaders to protect and bolster local, state, and federal laws implementing the Clean Water Act with a groundswell of constituent engagement. The result will be new pathways to address the 21st century problems such as climate change, emerging contaminants, extreme storms, pandemics, and environmental injustice

Join us and help shape the next 50 years of clean water in your local communities!