As supporters of the Clean Water Act celebrate its 40th anniversary this week, conservation groups are warning voters across the U.S. not to take their clean water for granted.
While the act is generally considered the most important environmental protection legislation in the nation’s history, it’s also being criticized by some members of Congress as over-reaching regulation that is thwarting jobs.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House twice in the past two years has approved legislation that would turn over enforcement of the Clean Water Act from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the states. Supporters of the legislation say it would ease permitting delays that hamper economic development.
So far, the House bill has stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But conservation groups warned Tuesday that the act should be beefed up, not watered down.
“That would send us back to the 1960s when we had rivers burning,” said Jan Goldman Carter, National Wildlife Federation spokeswoman, in a Tuesday teleconference.
The Clean Water Act, which passed Congress overwhelmingly Oct. 18, 1972, sets standards and goals for all waterways to be clean enough for drinking, fishing and swimming, but also gives the federal government powers to enforce those rules. It’s also used to protect some wetlands, considered filters for downstream sources of drinking water.
Supporters of the Clean Water Act held a news conference Tuesday afternoon on top of the giant sewage overflow tank in Duluth’s Canal Park, in part paid for with $20 million in federal grants. The tank holds raw sewage during heavy rains that, in the past, would have spilled into Lake Superior.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness joined conservation leaders in lauding not just the original protections of the Clean Water Act but also the continued investment by the federal government in reducing pollution to reach water-quality goals set by the act.
Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation, said Minnesota’s wealth of lakes and streams have made great strides — such as the resurgence of the Mississippi and St. Louis rivers, once considered dead waters due to industrial waste and untreated sewage — thanks to the Clean Water Act. Hunting and fishing in Minnesota are dependent on clean water, he noted, and contribute nearly $4 billion annually to the state’s economy.
“Great Lakes restoration projects are producing results, but there is more work to do,” Botzek said. “At a time when the nation is making historic investments to restore the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and other U.S. waters, it does not make sense to undermine those efforts by weakening strong clean water protections.”
Before the Clean Water Act “we didn’t fish the bay,” said Dave Zentner of the Izaak Walton League of America, noting the St. Louis River estuary was heavily polluted with industrial waste and untreated sewage. “Mom and dad scolded kids if they even went wading in the bay,”
After the Clean Water Act, Zentner noted, the federal government not only required the river be cleaned up, but covered 75 percent of the cost for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District plant that helped turned the river into a thriving ecosystem again.
Members of the Blue Green Alliance, a joint union-environmental organization, also promoted increased water and sewer infrastructure investment by the government to not only protect the environment and public health but create high-paying construction jobs. Supporters of strong federal clean water regulations say they also prevent states from getting into reverse bidding wars, trying to reduce their own regulations to outbid other states for jobs from polluting industries.
HR 2018, which passed the House last year, was supported by some development and farming groups but strongly opposed by conservation, angling and hunting organizations. Minnesota U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-North Branch, and Shawn Duffy, R-Wis., voted for the legislation to change how the Clean Water Act is enforced. A spokesman for Cravaack did not immediately return a request to comment on that vote.