Celebrating 50 Years of Clean Water


By John Phillips, Director of Integrated Watershed Management

Today, October 18, 2022, marks the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

The 1960s were marked by some truly horrific revelations regarding water pollution. A 1968 survey revealed that pollution in the Chesapeake Bay resulted in millions of dollars of lost revenue for the fishing industry, while a 1969 study found that bacteria
levels in the Hudson River to be at 170 times the legal limit. The same year, pollution from local food processing plants killed 26 million fish in one lake in Florida, the largest fish kill on record, and an oil slick resulted in an infamous fire
on the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland.

President Nixon’s Impact on Environmental Policy

During his first State of the Union address, delivered in 1970, President Richard Nixon designated the environment as the defining issue of the new decade. “The great question of the Seventies is…shall we make our peace with nature and begin
to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water,” he declared.

During his Presidency, Nixon was generally very proactive on environmental issues. According to the Richard Nixon Foundation, his administration initiated many of the most important and enduring environmental policies in American history including:

  • Signing the National Environmental Policy Act
  • Creating the Environmental Protection Agency
  • Signing the Clean Air Act of 1970
  • Creating the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Signing the Endangered Species Act
  • Signing the Marine Mammal Protection Act
  • Creating the Legacy of Parks program, which converted more than 80,000 acres of government property to recreational use in 642 new parks

However, he vetoed the Clean Water Act, even after it sailed through both houses of Congress, on the grounds that its price tag was too high.

The legislature overruled his veto the following morning, and the bill became law on October 18, 1972.

What does the Clean Water Act do?

The Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. The basis of the CWA was enacted in 1948 and was called the Federal
Water Pollution Control Act, but the Act was significantly reorganized and expanded in 1972. “Clean Water Act” became the Act’s common name with amendments in 1972.

The objective of the Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. To achieve this objective, the Act sets two goals:

  1. The elimination of the discharge of all pollutants into the navigable waters of the United States by 1985.
  2. An interim level of water quality that provides for the protection of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and recreation by July 1, 1983.

In this framework, Congress gave the Administrator the legal tools necessary to make inroads into the problems of water pollution control, while continuing to recognize the primary rights and responsibilities of the States to prevent, reduce, and eliminate

History of Federal Water Legislation

Federal water legislation dates to the nineteenth century, when Congress enacted the River and Harbor Act of 1886, recodified in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. It is only within the last seven years, however, that major water pollution legislation
has been passed.

Recognizing the threat that dirty water posed to the public health and welfare, Congress enacted the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), to “enhance the quality and value of our water resources and to establish a national policy for the prevention,
control and abatement of water pollution.” FWPCA and its several amendments set out the basic legal authority for Federal regulation of water quality.

The original Act was passed in 1948. Its amendments broadened the Federal government’s authority in water pollution control. The Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1956 strengthened enforcement provisions by providing for an abatement suit at the
request of a State pollution control agency; where health was being endangered, the Federal government no longer had to receive the consent of all States involved.

The federal role was further expanded under the Water Quality Act of 1965. That act provided for the setting of water quality standards which are State and Federally enforceable; it became the basis for interstate water quality standards. The Clean Water
Restoration Act of 1966 imposed a $100 per day fine on a polluter who failed to submit a required report. The Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970 again expanded Federal authority and established a State certification procedure to prevent degradation
of water below applicable standards.

Despite the improvements achieved by each amendment to the original Act, the result of this sporadic legislation was a hodgepodge of law. Eleven reorganizations and restructurings of Federal agency responsibility compounded the difficulty of effectively
implementing the law. To solve these problems, the 1972 amendments to the FWPCA restructured the authority for water pollution control and consolidated authority in the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

While the Clean Water Act has been amended over the past five decades; the basic structure of the law remains the same.

Where do we go from here?

Parametrix was founded in 1969, three years before the Clean Water Act was established. The CWA has had a profound impact on the work we do in our communities. As our purpose states, we remain committed to helping clients and partners create vibrant,
sustainable communities and restoring the health of the planet for future generations.

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Whether it is building advanced wastewater treatment plants using the most advance technology to help clients meet regulations today or regional stormwater parks that reduce the impact of our urban areas; the Clean Water Act is a strong foundation to
meeting our shared purpose.

In the future we will continue to help clients meet the requirements, treat more runoff from urban areas, and stay engaged on where technology leads us to remove past and future threats to waterways. Parametrix is also preparing our communities for the
threat of a changing climate and the stress that will bring to the water our communities depend on.

Communities cannot meet the needs of future generations without clean water, and we are growing our incredible skills in advancing clean water throughout our regions for the next 50 years.

About the Author

Director of Integrated Watershed Management

John Phillips


John Phillips joined Parametrix in 2019 as the Director of Integrated Watershed Management. John guides the firm’s integrated approach to natural resources and infrastructure development in watershed planning, management, restoration, and climate change adaptation. John also assists clients in the identification and development of solutions for combined and sanitary sewer overflows to meet consent decree and discharge standards.

Prior to joining Parametrix, John worked for King County managing the Combined Sewer Overflow Control Program. Over his 19-year career, he has also managed Green Stormwater Infrastructure and Climate Change Adaptation programs. His climate work has been referenced in both the IPCC and National Climate Assessment reports. He is Past President of the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association. John has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Environmental Science from Oregon State University and served six years as a sonar man in the U.S. Navy on-board nuclear submarines.

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