Success and Backlash: The Remarkable (Continuing) Story of the Clean Water Act
George Washington Journal of Energy & Environmental Law, Vol. 4, pp. 25-37, Winter 2013
14 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2013
Date Written: March 11, 2013
The Clean Water Act has produced a tremendous amount of progress over the past forty years. Both municipal and industrial discharges have declined sharply, the loss of wetlands has been cut decisively, and water quality has broadly improved. Much more work, however, remains to be done. Not surprisingly, given the limits of human forethought and political capacity, the original statutory design was not perfect. Furthermore, the statute's implementation has not been perfect due, in large part, to often straitened budgets, instances of bureaucratic timidity and lethargy, and the hostility that some administrations and some Congresses have exhibited towards strong environmental protection. Although more robust administrative action can improve the effectiveness of the Act in a number of ways, it will take contressional action to fully address the jurisdictional, budgetary, and structural problems that are obstructing efforts to fully restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters. The prospects for such comprehensive congressional action are slight at the present time. In fact, we are enduring yet another backlash on Capitol Hill against regulation as well as against the protections provided by the Clean Water Act. It will take renewed and stronger efforts to inform and galvanize public opinion, not only to defeat the current backlash, but to build the level of support necessary to complete the task that the nation so boldly embarked upon in 1972. This article discusses both the Act's major successes as well as the problems that remain. In addition, the article explores the most recent congressional backlash against the Act's regulatory structure and proposes a number of steps aimed toward turning generalized public support for clean water into legislative action.
Keywords: environmental law, pollution, pollution law, environmental history, water pollution, clean water act
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