35 Years and Counting

U.S. EPA engages partners and new tools to achieve goals of the Clean Water Act

October 18 is a special day for America’s waters, wetlands, and watersheds: the Clean Water Act (CWA) turns 35. As one of the world’s most successful and enduring environmental laws marks this milestone, it’s a great time to reflect on where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and where we need to go.

Significant progress CWA has dramatically improved water quality through scientific standards, discharge permits, pre-treatment requirements, state and local funding, and watershed planning. For example, under CWA’s permit program, 31 million pounds of pollutants are no longer discharged into waterways each year. Today, of the 222.8 million people served by wastewater treatment facilities, more than 98.5 percent (219.5 million people) are served by secondary or better treatment. Such advances in wastewater treatment constitute one of the major achievements in modern American public health.

Administration priorities
One of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top priorities is to develop and implement innovative, sustainable, and market-based solutions to managing and financing water and wastewater infrastructure.

For the last four years, we have emphasized “Four Pillars of Sustainability”: better management, full-cost pricing, efficient water use, and watershed approaches to protection. We will continue to build on the success through the three tools of collaboration, innovation, and technology.

The infrastructure challenge isn’t just an EPA challenge or a state and local challenge—it’s everyone’s challenge. We’re committed to working with our partners to help change the way America views and values water and the infrastructure support systems. In May, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson signed a statement of support with six national associations to promote 10 key attributes that will help utilities manage for success and sustainability. The Bush Administration is proposing a bold new tool, Water Enterprise Bonds, to accelerate and increase investment in the nation’s water infrastructure. These bonds will facilitate innovative public-private partnerships by communities seeking the financial and operational expertise of the private sector.

New tools
The heart and soul of CWA, current and future, must be a holistic, watershed approach that looks at upstream, downstream, point source, and nonpoint source issues and brings new partners and new tools to the problem-solving table. This is particularly true for the growing and complex field of wetweather flows (such as sewer overflows, stormwater, nonpoint runoff, and combined animal feed operations, or CAFOs). EPA just released new guidance on watershed permitting and water quality trading that will help permit writers, utilities, watershed organizations, and citizens accelerate restoration and protection. The agency also is embracing and advancing, like never before, the “green infrastructure” movement to mimic natural processes involving vegetation, infiltration, evapotranspiration, and beneficial reuse to reduce problems with sewer overflows and stormwater. The president’s goal of gaining, not simply maintaining, wetlands will contribute significantly to the greening of watersheds and improved ecosystem health.

Emerging challenges
One of today’s priorities, certainly not on Congress’ mind as it wrote the 1972 Clean Water Act, is climate change. EPA’s National Water Program established a workgroup in March to assess impacts and evaluate how best to meet our clean water and safe drinking water goals. We’re putting considerable effort behind this, with a focus on mitigation, adaptation, and research. We know it will be important to adapt to climate changes and revise various programs and activities.

We are facing new challenges and are seeking to better apply the tools and techniques under CWA to adjust our approaches and find new solutions.

Look for more EPA-related work on wetlands protection, energy and water efficiency, and coastal hypoxia in the coming months.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Benjamin H. Grumbles is U.S. EPA assistant administrator for water.

Featured Webinar