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October 19, 2022

The Clean Water Act, A Half Century Later

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

For decades, the Clean Water Act – passed this week in 1972 – has limited pollution in America’s waterways and set water quality standards across the country. Its passage required the work of activists paired with bipartisan support.

Today, the Clean Water Act demonstrates some of the great successes and limitations of environmental regulation in the United States, says Ryke Longest, clinical professor of law and co-director of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. And while the act has flaws, it's certainly improved water quality, says Martin Doyle, director of the Water Policy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability, professor of river systems science and policy in the Nicholas School of the Environment and author of the book "The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade its Rivers."

Doyle said, "The Clean Water Act largely worked. While it isn’t perfect, and we still have polluted waters, it’s important to remember what the situation was like before. Industrial and municipal wastewater was being dumped into streams, rivers and lakes in many places without any treatment. It’s not that the Cuyahoga River burned; it’s that the Cuyahoga River burned frequently, as did many other rivers in industrial cities. That doesn’t happen much anymore. When there is an event, that event gains a lot of attention, which means that they are relatively unusual. So, the Clean Water Act is working but can keep getting better.

"Also, people pay attention to the CWA, as they should, but they forget the profound importance of the Safe Drinking Water Act which passed years later in 1974. That’s the one that we really need to focus on, as it is why we can drink water from the tap…usually."