On October 18, the nation will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. This landmark piece of legislation has proven remarkably successful. Water pollution discharges from both industry and municipal sewer systems have declined sharply, the loss of wetlands has been cut decisively, and water quality has broadly improved across the country. The Clean Water Act is, in short, a real success story. It stands as a tribute to the foresight of those in Congress who passed it, as well as to the men and women in both state and federal regulatory agencies who have worked so hard, and for so long, to restore the integrity of our nation’s waters.
The Act, however, is showing its age. Twenty-five years have passed since it was last amended in comprehensive fashion, and more than a little fine-tuning is necessary to finish the task that began in 1972. The most significant problem involves nonpoint source pollution – the indirect discharge of polluted runoff from fields and roads, clear cuts, and parking lots. The Act never addressed nonpoint source pollution in a straightforward way. Instead, it was treated as something of an afterthought left primarily in the hands of state and local government, and they have primarily relied upon voluntary management practices to control polluted runoff. As a result, nonpoint source pollution has evolved into the largest single source of water quality impairment in the country. These diffuse sources of water pollution are, furthermore, much more diverse than we once thought. In addition to obvious sources such as polluted runoff from agriculture, urban areas, logging operations, and mines, nonpoint source pollution also includes cross-media transfers, including the deposition of air pollutants such as mercury and nitrogen, into our waters.