News | October 18, 2022

Clean Water Act at 50: People’s protection against pollution

Leader of SELC’s Clean Water Program Geoff Gisler talks progress and vigilance

Fifty years ago, when former President Richard Nixon initially vetoed the Clean Water Act, Republican Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee famously said, “I have found that the kind of natural environment we bequeath to our children and grandchildren is of paramount importance. If we cannot swim in our lakes and rivers, if we cannot breathe the air God has given us, what other comforts can life offer us?”  

This year, we’re celebrating 50 years of the Clean Water Act — but there’s more work to do at this critical moment in the fight to protect clean water for generations to come.

Read on to get the scoop on keeping your water clean from Senior Attorney Geoff Gisler, who leads Southern Environmental Law Center’s Clean Water Program out of our Chapel Hill office.

Who benefits the most from clean water? 

We all do. Think about how we use water each day. We drink it, give it to our kids, bathe in it, and use it for cooking. It is part of us. When polluters take that away from families and communities, it shakes us to our core. And so many people depend on clean water for their livelihoods, from the multi-billion-dollar outdoors, brewing, fisheries, and tourism economies to folks out fishing for supper.

Without the Clean Water Act’s basic safeguards in place, the waters that millions of Southerners depend on every day for drinking water and other uses would be at risk of pollution and destruction.

Geoff Gisler, Senior Attorney

What does the Clean Water Act do? 

It gives us the tools to prevent pollution and hope for a better future. When the law was passed in 1972, an overwhelmingly bipartisan Congress recognized that our families won’t be safe until we stop polluting our streams and rivers entirely — and set a goal of eliminating pollution by 1985. We haven’t met that goal because the law hasn’t been enforced. When it is, the Clean Water Act can stop pollution from ever entering our waters. 

Without the Clean Water Act’s basic safeguards in place, the waters that millions of Southerners depend on every day for drinking water and other uses would be at risk of pollution and destruction. Nationally, that number is more like 217 million people.

What is PFAS pollution? 

PFAS is a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX and similar chemicals that are designed to be hard to break down. They are forever chemicals — they do not dissipate, dissolve, or degrade, but stay in water, soil, and our bodies. Research has demonstrated that PFAS are toxic at very, very low levels — some at concentrations of less than one drop of water in 20 swimming pools. 

Learn more about forever chemical pollution.

What makes this a critical moment in the fight against toxic PFAS and other forever chemical pollution in our water? 

EPA will decide in the next couple of months how stringently states must enforce the Clean Water Act to stop PFAS pollution. We have the laws and the technology to stop PFAS pollution, we just need the will. Because PFAS are toxic at such low levels, we need to control big sources — including PFAS manufacturers — as well as small sources, such as industries that send their pollution to wastewater treatment plants.  

We know PFAS pollution can be stopped at the source before getting into our drinking water sources using existing laws because this is what SELC attorneys are doing right now working with partners in our region. EPA must ensure that states are using all available tools to stop toxic PFAS pollution. Every community in the country deserves the protection of the Clean Water Act. 

Anything else we should know?  

We’re working on a campaign to make it easy for anyone to take action and tell EPA to protect clean water by stopping forever chemical pollution at its source. If you’re on our email list or following us on social media, you’ll be the first to know when the campaign is live. 

SELC is defending the right to clean water.