Center for Progressive Reform

Clean Water

Working for Clean Waterways and Drinking Water

Passed in 1972 in response to a spate of egregious and well publicized water pollution incidents, the Clean Water Act established a series of technology-based pollution standards, set the stage for a comprehensive regulatory program to protect wetlands, and created an ambitious public works program aimed at building or upgrading thousands of municipal wastewater treatment plants. Although enforcement of the Clean Water Act is often spotty today, it has, over the years, led to significant improvements in water quality across the nation.

Many Goals Unmet

Despite the many successes of the Clean Water Act, many of its goals have not yet been achieved. As CPR Member Scholar William Andreen and CPR Policy Analyst Shana Campbell Jones write in their July 2008 white paper on the future of clean water protection: 

Almost half of the nation's waters are still "impaired," which is to say that they are too polluted to support the uses authorities have identified for them – to serve as sources of drinking water, recreational areas, or to support fish and wildlife. Wetlands continue to be lost to pollution and development. Nonpoint source pollution – runoff from farms, construction sites, and roads, for example – is the leading cause of water pollution today, but it is inadequately addressed by the CWA. Industrial facilities, meanwhile, are discharging toxics into sewer systems that then pass into waterways. In addition, the nation's wastewater infrastructure is aging and showing its wear. All the while, enforcement has declined, particularly in the last few years. Since 2001, two Supreme Court decisions – Rapanos and SWANCC – have thrust the CWA into the spotlight, paring back the CWA's protection of wetlands and other waters.

Their white paper, The Clean Water Act: A Blueprint for Reform (4.7 meg download), maps out a series of short- and long-term proposals for retooling the Clean Water Act to address the challenges of the 21st century.  Among the proposals:

  • Redouble monitoring to identify impaired waters, and strengthen controls on pollution affecting those waters;
  • Strengthen protections for wetlands, particularly with an eye toward the effects of climate change;
  • Beef up protections against “nonpoint source pollution”;
  • Hold federal facilities, including the Departments of Defense and Energy, accountable for the pollution they and their contractors create;
  • Amend the Clean Water Act to undo the damage from Supreme Court decisions narrowing its reach;
  • Provide additional funding for water treatment, water quality monitoring, and for federal monitoring and enforcement; and
  • Develop “green” infrastructure as a means to mitigating stormwater pollution.

 Read about CPR Member Scholars' work protecting clean water:

  • Cheapeake Bay Clean-up.  The Chesapeake Bay is North America's largest estuary, but its water quality has deterioriated badly in recent decades, the result of pollution and poor management.  CPR Member Scholars are working with a coalition of organizations to help solve the problem.  See our Chesapeake Bay pages for a wealth of resources, including reports and evaluations by Member Scholars of the ongoing efforts to breathe life into clean-up efforts.
  • SWANCC. Read William Buzbee's May 29, 2014 testimony before the House Committee on Small Business on proposed Army Corps of Engineers "waters of the United States" regulations in response to the Supreme Court's SWANCC and other decisions. 
  • Agricultural Secrecy. In September 2012, CPR published Going Dark Down on the Farm: How Legalized Secrecy Gives Agribusiness a Federally Funded Free Ride, identifying the problem of agricultural secrecy and its repercussions for transparency, public health, and the environment. The paper explains how agricultural producers receive billions of dollars in federal subsidies, crop insurance, conservation payments, and other grants -- yet the USDA is authorized to keep secret much of the basic information that farmers provide to qualify for this public funding. Read the accompanying blog post.
  • Mintz Testimony on Enforcement. Read Joel Mintz's June 6, 2012 testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power on EPA's enforcement record during the Obama years.
  • International Treaties. Read Reclaiming Global Environmental Leadership: Why the United States Should Ratify Ten Pending Environmental Treaties, CPR White Paper 1201.
  • BP Oil Spill. Read  about CPR Member Scholars work related to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, including reports on the subject, as well as op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, Raleigh News-Observer, Mobile Press-Register and more.
  • IRIS. Read about efforts to get EPA to update its IRIS database, a gateway to regulating dozens of toxic chemicals already in commerce.
  • Texas Water Quality Op-Ed.  Read "Texas water will suffer under plan to lower standards," an op-ed by Thomas McGarity, published in the March 18, 2010 Austin American Statesman on a proposal by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to downgrade the state's water standards.
  • Public Trust Doctrine.  Shared public resources should be preserved for future generations, and the "public trust doctrine" holds that it's the government's responsibility to protect them.  CPR is preparing a manual on how clean water activists can put the doctrine to work in courts.  Read more about it here, and watch and listen to a July 2009 CPR webinar on the subject, here.
  • Clean Water in the 21st Century. Read The Clean Water Act: A Blueprint for Reform (4.7 meg download), by CPR Member Scholar William Andreen and CPR Policy Analyst Shana Campbell Jones, published June 2008 (CPR White Paper 802).  Or read the Executive Summary (4.15 meg download) (CPR White Paper 802ES).
  • The Rapanos Case. Read William Buzbee's August 1, 2006 testimony (280 kb download) before the Fisheries, Wildlife and Water subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Professor Buzbee's topic: the implications of the Supreme Court's decision in the Rapanos case for efforts to protect America's waterways from polluters. Read his April 16, 2008 testimony (200 kb download) on the Clean Water Restoration Act, and how it would repair the damage from the Court’s decisions.
  • A CPR Perspective.  CPR Member Scholars have authored articles on related topics, as part of the CPR Perspectives Series. These include Perspectives on TMDLs and Nonpoint Source Pollution and Wetlands.

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