2022 marks the 50th anniversary of both the Clean Water Act and The Conservation Foundation. One was conceived far away, and one right here in northeastern Illinois by local visionaries, but both have had a profound impact on our water resources! You can take a deep dive into what The Conservation Foundation is all about by exploring this website further. But what is The Clean Water Act and what does it mean for conservation? Let’s delve into it.
What is the Clean Water Act?
Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972, bringing to the forefront America’s responsibility to protect and restore the vital waterways that sustain our communities, support our economy, and foster our ecosystem.
Before this landmark legislation, America’s waters were in crisis, often flooded and even on fire with toxic pollution. People of a certain age may remember the Randy Newman song “Burn On” about the state of the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland at the time. Industrial waste and sewage threatened our drinking water, and wetlands disappeared at an alarming rate. The CWA met these challenges head-on, setting and enforcing national water quality standards, restricting pollution, and investing in wastewater treatment and better wetlands management.
Under the CWA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry. The EPA has also developed national water quality criteria recommendations for pollutants in surface waters.
Who implements the Clean Water Act?
The EPA’s Office of Water (OW) is responsible for implementing many Federal Acts, including the Clean Water Act. The OW restores and maintains oceans, watersheds, and aquatic ecosystems to protect human health, support economic and recreational activities, and provide a healthy habitat for fish, plants, and wildlife. It also ensures that our drinking water is safe.
Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the Office of Water works with state and local governments, American Indian tribes, organized professional and interest groups, landowners, and the public-at-large. The OW provides guidance and oversight, specifies scientific methods and data collection requirements, and facilitates communication among those involved. The OW helps individual states as well as American Indian tribes with their water programs, helping them to run effectively.
Since the enactment of the Clean Water Act, our Nation’s waters are dramatically cleaner. Once dead rivers and lakes are now flourishing with wildlife. People have returned to boat, fish, and swim. Many sacred waters that Tribal Nations have relied on for generations are clean again. This is a testament to the tireless partnerships that the EPA has forged with state, local, and Tribal governments. It is a powerful tribute not only to the people who first sounded the alarm, built support, and fought to pass this powerful law but also to Americans everywhere who have done so much to help enforce it.
What does it mean for conservation?
Let’s face it, water quality is one of the pillars of conservation. Conservation efforts have benefited greatly from the CWA. As previously noted, the CWA encouraged work with organized professional and interest groups, such as TCF, that spearheaded water conservation programs. Many organizations focus on water quality and water conservation efforts. Some of these include:
Protection of watersheds – preservation and protection of watersheds and development of water quality restoration plans. This also includes habitat conservation efforts along with solid or hazardous waste cleanup plans under state or federal programs.
Eliminating contamination of drinking water sources – managing non-hazardous and hazardous waste, as well as promoting Farm Bill conservation programs and subsidies to reduce nutrients and impacts of row cropping on source waters.
Effective stormwater management – managing non-hazardous and hazardous waste including landfills. In addition, promoting protection and creation of green stormwater infrastructure as best management practices.
Improved cropland practices – minimizing and removal of practices that can exacerbate the impairment of water bodies such as excessive or detrimental application of pesticides and fertilizers, lack of soil conservation, wetland destruction, and poor maintenance of farm equipment.
Protection of wetlands – protecting wetlands, streams, and lakes from dredging and filling. This also counters loss of natural hydrology and helps maintain natural recycling of water from rain that contributes to clean water.
Protection of species and ecological integrity – ensuring threatened and endangered species and habitat are included in designated uses and developing criteria to protect them. Furthermore, conservationists can insist on adequate implementation of the antidegradation policy to protect existing water quality and ecologically significant areas.
So how can you contribute to conservation efforts that help support clean water for all? Well, if you’re not already, you can become a member or supporter of The Conservation Foundation! Our tag line is “We save land. We save rivers.” Water conservation is what The Conservation Foundation has been doing for fifty years! Yes, in 1972 both the Clean Water Act and The Conservation Foundation were born. And 50 years later, we can see what a difference large-scale national legislation combined with local grassroots efforts have made in the water quality and overall health of this region we call home. We can all do more together than we can alone.
By Steve Stawarz, Oak Brook
DuPage County Advisory Council Member