Editorial: 50 years later, the Clean Water Act is under assault—for the second time
Editor’s Note: The first installment of this three-part series focused primarily on the impact of the Clean Water Act’s passage on the nation’s waterways. Part two focuses on a major flaw the Clean Water Act has—one that makes it vulnerable to future attacks: the Act’s reliance on water quality standards.
By Chris Wood
The Clean Water Act (CWA) has been around for nearly 50 years and, by design, never became bogged down by political wrangling over water quality management issues. The law set national and regional water quality goals, providing federal agencies with tools to monitor and manage water quality. With the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the law gave the government the opportunity to protect water quality on a large scale.
In terms of practical application, the CWA has been a success. The law has been lauded for its bipartisan support, helping to preserve more than 1,600 miles of fish and recreational waterways, and providing the federal government with a strong legal tool to reduce or eliminate the discharge of pollutants to our nation’s waters.
However, over the past decade, Congress and the administration have engaged in a series of attacks on the CWA, arguing that the law is underperforming and that the federal government needs to step in and fix the problem.
On May 16, 2015, U.S. senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced legislation to effectively repeal the Clean Water Act, the first step in the administration’s attempt to dismantle the law. Cruz’s legislation, the Rivers and Harbors Act, is one of many congressional pieces of legislation that would undermine the CWA, including several bills introduced by senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. This list of senators illustrates the problem with the proposed repeal of the CWA: It is all too easy, especially for small and big government proponents, to find a legislative Trojan horse to replace the original law.
Congress and executive branch support the law’s objectives, but in recent years, they have shifted their focus to water quality management, with Congress focused on streamlining environmental regulations and President Barack Obama shifting water quality from a national priority to a “state