New Report Highlights Successes Over Five Decades of the Clean Water Act

“Few laws have been as transformative to the nation’s quality of life as the Clean Water Act.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 20, 2022) — A new report from the National Wildlife Federation outlines how the Clean Water Act – which was signed into law 50 years ago this week -– has improved water quality and protected water bodies nationwide. 

“For 50 years, the Clean Water Act has helped communities protect streams that provide safe drinking water, wetlands that offer essential flood protection, and habitats that sustain our wildlife heritage,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. 

The report, Five Decades of Clean Water: The Clean Water Act’s Incredible Successes, Its Current Limitations, and Its Uncertain Future, details the law’s successes, including:

  • Protecting  Waters Nationwide: The number of places meeting water quality standards has doubled, despite a population increase of 120 million people.
  • Improving Wastewater Treatment: The Clean Water Act has funded 35,000 wastewater improvement projects totaling $650 billion. On average, each grant improves water quality for 25 miles downstream, with benefits lasting for decades.
  • Preventing Industrial Pollution: The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program prevents 700 billion pounds of pollutants from entering our waters annually. Roughly 200,000 “point source” pollutants – such as sewage treatment facilities, paper mills, petroleum refineries, indoor hog farms, and certain types of construction sites – are currently regulated under this section of the law.
  • Protecting Wetlands: An area of wetlands roughly the size of Maryland – 7.6 million acres of wetlands – were destroyed in the lower 48 states in the two decades before the law took effect. Today, wetlands loss has slowed dramatically and the losses are somewhat offset by wetlands created elsewhere. 

“Few laws have been as transformative to the nation’s quality of life as the Clean Water Act,” said Jim Murphy, director of legal advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation. “The waterways that could lose protection are the kidneys and sponges of larger rivers and lakes, safeguarding the health and safety of millions of Americans.”

The 50th anniversary of the law’s passage comes as the Supreme Court is considering a case that has the potential to remove Clean Water Act protections for roughly half the nation’s streams and wetlands. 

“If the Supreme Court rules in favor of polluters, state and local agencies must step in to ensure our drinking water supplies, flood protection, and critical habitats are secure for future generations and Congress must act to restore the broad protections it intended,” said Murphy.

The outcome of this case could put people and wildlife across the country at risk:

  • Roughly a third of all Americans get drinking water from streams whose protections are in question.
  • Roughly half of the nation’s wetlands could lose Clean Water Act protections, increasing the risk of flooding nationwide.
  • Impacts in the arid West could be particularly severe. For example, nearly all of Arizona's streams are at risk of losing protections, which would invalidate 98% of existing discharge permits.

“From undrinkable water in Jackson to the flood-prone wards of Houston, the importance of clean water and thriving wetlands has never been clearer,” said O’Mara. 

Visit the National Wildlife Federation Media Center at NWF.org/News.

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The National Wildlife Federation is America's largest conservation organization uniting all Americans to ensure wildlife thrive in a rapidly-changing world. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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