The Clean Water Act at 50

Approaching the half-century mark of this landmark piece of environmental legislation, Penn students, staff, and faculty share their reflections on its legacy, both strengths and shortcomings.

delaware river with the philly skyline and a sailboat
Today the Delaware River in Philadelphia is a site for both recreation and industry. Provisions in the Clean Water Act, passed by Congress a half-century ago, changed the “life history” of many waterways such as this one, Penn experts note.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Industrial plants with permits to discharge pollutants into rivers did not have to disclose what exactly they were releasing into waterways. Two-thirds of lakes, rivers, and coasts were considered unsafe for fishing or swimming. 

Against this backdrop, Congress proposed a transformative set of amendments to what was then known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. Passed with a bipartisan majority over President Nixon’s veto, the legislation became law in October 1972. Its scope was so much broader than the previous Act that it got a new name: the Clean Water Act.

cuyahoga river fire
Over its history, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was considered one of the nation’s most polluted rivers and caught fire a number of times. A fire in 1969 was credited with spurring on environmental action, including the development of what would become the Clean Water Act. (Image: Tullio Saba)

The landmark piece of environmental legislation turns 50 this year. Its sweeping aims led to significant improvements in water quality across the country, but challenges remain. Penn Today asked five Penn community members whose expertise intersects in different ways with water to share their perspectives on the Act.

Ellen Kohler, director of applied research and programs, The Water Center at Penn

The Clean Water Act has clearly had a significant and positive environmental impact on our country. The marshaling of all the point-source discharge into permits that limited the amount of pollution that was flowing into our waterways from pipes was absolutely monumental and changed the life history of many waterways. That was undoubtedly a huge policy success. 

After we dealt with pollution from factories and wastewater treatment plants, the next big challenge was dealing with combined sewer overflows (CSOs)—where sewage waste ends up traveling into water bodies through pipes that combine sewage and stormwater after a significant rainfall overwhelms the capacity of the system. When those combined systems were designed, they made sense for many communities. But communities have grown and we now have such large storm events that these old systems can’t handle the amount of water anymore. Reducing—or better yet, eliminating—the number of times sewage overflows into rivers is an enormous undertaking in urban communities. 

In the 1980s, federal funding to address the water pollution challenges switched from capital grants to the state revolving fund programs, which provide almost entirely loan financing. This funding is helpful and allows many communities to invest in repairs that address sewer overflows. But loans are only helpful to communities that haven’t reached their debt-financing limits trying to address other environmental and social burdens—like poverty and unemployment. Just as in the housing market, the lack of access to financing has had clear inequitable impacts that has perpetuated structural racism—in this case, evidenced by the persistent pollution of rivers and streams in communities of color. 

shoemaker green collecting stormwater
Green infrastructure around Philadelphia, including on Penn’s campus, helps minimize the influx of stormwater into the city’s sewer system. Shoemaker Green features a rain garden lush with native plants as well as an underground cistern designed to hold 20,000 gallons of water. (Image: Chloe Cerwinka/FRES)

As climate change brings stronger storms, there’s an increasing need to manage overflows from combined sewer systems. These large storms are also causing more flooding in urban neighborhoods more often where people of color live. We need to integrate water management to build resiliency, reduce flooding, and address persistent pollution. We have the tools we need through the CWA and other federal and state laws and policies—we just need to use them.

A lot of cities are transitioning to a more “green” approach to managing stormwater, using plants and soils to filter our water rather than building big treatment systems. They’re investing in tree canopy cover, green roofs—Washington, D.C. is doing that, New York City is doing that, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are doing that. It’s very encouraging, but we have to come to terms with the fact that we haven’t invested enough in our water quality challenges in urban areas. If we really invest there, all of us are going to benefit from those investments. 

Amisha Shahra, graduate student in the Master of Environmental Sciences program

The Clean Water Act was revolutionary. It set a precedent as to what a good environmental policy can do. It has been an extremely successful legislation which has transformed polluted streams and rivers to clean surface water sources. In a place where environmental policies are still being developed, like India, where precedent means a lot as well, looking at successful policies like the CWA is interesting and helpful.

In India, environmental laws are coming into place as environmental movements are arising. Just a few weeks ago, Mumbai launched its first climate action plan. It’s the first city in India to have a road to a net-zero carbon goal. Water is a key component in the plan that’s being developed. 

After I graduated from Penn in 2016, I was part of a small founding team of Global Citizen India, a movement to end extreme poverty by 2030 by bridging public policy and popular culture. The first year’s efforts were committed to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals with a focus on Water and Sanitation, Quality Education, and Gender Equality.

There’s a lot of energy around water issues right now and different ways in which water is impacting economies, geopolitics, and much more. Currently I'm studying sustainable water management in the MES program, and in the long term, I hope to return to India to scale efforts in this sector. 

Bethany Wiggin, associate professor of German in the School of Arts & Sciences, founding director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities

Philadelphia’s famously unpronounceable river, the “Skookill,” or Schuylkill in colonial Dutch, just might be the birthplace of the Clean Water Act. As the CWA turns 50, the river and its “wooder” offer important vantage points to reflect on the success of the CWA as well as on considerable challenges we face in making all American waters swimmable and fishable. 

Used for decades as an energy corridor for coal transportation and for centuries as a waste sink, a path-breaking project began in 1947 to clean up a 100-mile stretch of the river. The Schuylkill restoration project offered important evidence that even rivers that caught on fire or swam with “Schuylkill punch” could become rivers again: fishable and swimmable. Today, the river can be swum by triathletes, at least when it hasn’t rained too much. 

Schuylkill map
Artist Cecily Anderson created a map of the tidal Schuylkill River as part of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities’ Ecotopian Toolkit initiative, an effort that invites a reimagining of what tools will be necessary for life along waterways in the Anthropocene. (Image: Cecily Anderson/PPEH)

The CWA has brought justice to many American waters, but hardly all. A 2022 study found that fully one half of American lakes and rivers are too polluted for swimming and fishing. Many of these waters border environmental justice communities. Downriver communities along the Schuylkill show us what’s at stake in the ongoing failure of the CWA to accomplish its mandate. Upriver communities enjoyed “dry privilege” even before the advent of rapid climate change. Downriver, near where the Schuylkill debouches into the Delaware, communities such as Grays Ferry were redlined and made home to landfill, highways, train yards, and what was, until it exploded in June 2019, the largest and longest continuously operating oil refinery on the east coast. Today, the Delaware continues to be a major artery for fossil fuels’ refining, storage, and transport. As climate change worsens Philadelphia’s flooding, this toxic legacy is flooding back. 

As the CWA turns 50, we see what work for water justice can accomplish–and how local advocates can champion projects that take on national significance. Today, a new generation of projects—including the arts-driven Ecotopian Toolmakers project for water justice, with contributions by many Penn and Philadelphia-area experts working across sectors—help us to recognize how to celebrate and restore our waters. This work for water justice is only more timely amidst accelerating climate change. 

Richard Pepino, deputy director of the community engagement core of the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology and coordinator of the Academically Based Community Service courses in the School of Arts & SciencesDepartment of Earth and Environmental Science

The Clean Water Act is one of two core environmental laws, along with the Clean Air Act, that changed the quality of the air and water that we are so dependent upon. The CWA established water quality standards for surface waters, enacted rules for the regulation of pollutant discharges, and granted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to regulate and enforce pollution control programs. A job well done. But even the crowning achievements of the CWA are hampered by weaknesses that prevent the ultimate goals of this legislation from being reached. 

Such is the case for the phrase “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS). This term represents the limits of the law in defining the boundaries for comprehensive protection under the CWA. When the law was passed by Congress, the qualifier of “navigable waters” was used to denote when and where the mandates of the law should be applied. But a careful reading of the record clearly shows that Congressional intent was to go beyond protecting only those waters considered traditionally navigable. “Special waters,” such as wetlands, estuaries, headwaters, and seasonal water, while all performing critical ecological functions in the watershed, often go unprotected because they fall outside the legal definitions in the CWA. 

epa cleanup with rusty cars in water
In 1974, a polluted pond littered with junk cars in Utah was captured on film by a photographer with the Environmental Protection Agency. Under provisions of the Clean Water Act, it was later cleaned up, protecting a nearby wildlife refuge and the Great Salt Lake. (Image: Bruce McAllister/EPA/Documerica)

Both the EPA and U.S. Corps of Engineers, which share primacy for implementing the CWA, would tangle over what degree of protection should be afforded to the “special waters” in question, notably for wetlands. For two decades, negotiated definitions worked pretty well. But as case law mounted on defining WOTUS, legal opinions from the Supreme Court called for a more detailed definition for this term. The Court wanted to know whether special waters had a “significant nexus,” or a clear connection, to surface water and whether the special waters play a role “in preserving the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the adjacent navigable waters.” 

Today the technical nuisances of what constitutes special waters have been replaced with political discord accompanied by Clean Water Rules that last only as long as a political administration holds power. We need a scientifically sound definition of WOTUS that can be universally applied to ensure that all waters are fully protected and allow watersheds to continue their journey to improved water quality to meet environmental, recreational and human health needs. 

Chaeri Kim, doctoral student in City and Regional Planning at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design

Since 2007, green infrastructure has been promoted by the EPA as a tool to achieve CWA compliance. Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters Plan is one example. After violating the CWA with combined sewer overflows, a mixture of raw sewage and stormwater, the city entered into a Consent Order and Agreement in 2011 that mandates the creation of 10,000 Greened Acres to capture the first inch of stormwater through green infrastructure at an estimated cost of nearly $2.4 billion. Last year, the city celebrated the agreement’s 10-year anniversary. For the past decade, it created 1,888 Greened Acres through Green Streets, Green Schools, and other greening programs. This is a significant achievement. However, the city has not seen empirical, conclusive evidence that its green infrastructure projects have reduced combined sewer overflows and improved water quality to meet CWA standards.

green roof on singh nano building
Green roofs, like this one at the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, mitigate against combined sewage overflow events that can pollute waterways. (Image: Kendall Topping/FRES)

Philadelphia is not alone in this regard. In 2010 in Cleveland, for example, the local government planned to invest $42 million in green infrastructure projects to reduce 44 million gallons of combined sewer overflows to return to CWA compliance. However, this year, the local government found that it spent $53 million, but the estimated reduction is only 8.3 million gallons.

Over the last decade, the EPA has incorporated green infrastructure into its CWA compliance contexts. However, it has not evaluated the effectiveness of green infrastructure for compliance purposes. There is no national tracking system or evaluation framework that shows if and how much green infrastructure has contributed to water quality improvements. 

My dissertation is hoping to get at this challenge by investigating the influence of federal consent decrees on local green infrastructure planning and suggesting areas for regulatory and policy improvements to better facilitate desired outcomes in enforcement actions.

ben franklin bridge at twilight with philly skyline
Homepage image: Though a “revolutionary” piece of legislation, the Clean Water Act still has its shortcomings, Penn faculty, staff, and students note. More work is needed to make rivers like the Delaware fishable and swimmable.