Blog Post Sarah Gaines Barmeyer Oct 18, 2012

Focus on Water: Celebrating the Clean Water Act’s 40th Anniversary

Forty years ago today, Congress overrode a veto from President Nixon to officially make the Clean Water Act the nation’s law for protecting one of our most precious and irreplaceable resources. This landmark legislation is the reason why we are able to enjoy the many activities that we do today on our rivers, streams, and lakes, including those in and around our national parks.

While participating in the Great Lakes Restoration Conference in Cleveland last month, I had the opportunity to visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park for the first time. I met with park rangers and learned about restoration projects on the park’s waterways. As I stood on the banks of the famous Cuyahoga River, I had a hard time imagining that this beautiful river–now a centerpiece of a national park–was once one of the most polluted rivers in the nation, so much so that fish could not live along the stretch that is now in the park.

In 1969, just a few years before the Clean Water Act was passed, pollution on the river caught fire, as it had several times before. It was a wake-up call for many Americans to think about how we are using our rivers, streams, and lakes. Should we be dumping toxic industrial waste and oil-soaked debris into the same rivers and lakes that supply our drinking water?

Fortunately, we have come a long way from the days of burning rivers, and that’s something to celebrate!

When the Clean Water Act passed 40 years ago, less than a third of our nation’s waterways met water quality standards. Today more than two-thirds meet those standards. While we are greatly improved from where we were, there are many waterways around the country where pollution and toxins are so high that it is unsafe to swim or fish and drinking water standards are not met.

On the Cuyahoga today, one can find more than 40 fish species up and down the same stretch of river that had none 40 years ago. Thanks to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, there is a restoration project in Cuyahoga Valley National Park to reconnect Stanford Run tributary to the Cuyahoga River, which will improve Lake Erie water quality and provide additional fish and wildlife habitat. The river is returning. However, park managers still discourage canoeing, swimming, and wading in the river because of sewage and pathogens. We aren’t there yet.

Unfortunately, there are times at other national parks when visitors are restricted from using the waterways. There have been times when park rangers at the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River and within Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area have limited public access due to rises in fecal coliform levels. At the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, there has been a recreational water contact advisory for boating, swimming, and fishing due to a sewage treatment plant failure. There have been fish advisories for mercury levels at Cape Cod National Seashore.

These national parks are some of the most highly protected and cherished places in our country. If they don’t meet the standards, one can only imagine what it is like for waterways that have been neglected.

Protecting the quality of water that flows through and surrounds national parks is a responsibility that lies beyond the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and rests with the states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There is ongoing litigation between several states and EPA about how the Clean Water Act is being executed, and a lack of clarity about which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act due to Supreme Court decisions. These judicial uncertainties are leaving many waterways and wetlands exposed to pollution and degradation.

Our current Congress has acted against clean water more so than any other in history. There have been more than two dozen votes on separate amendments or bills to gut Clean Water Act protections, derail ongoing clean-up and restoration efforts, or add industry-specific loopholes to bedrock environmental laws. There have been nearly a dozen bills introduced to limit the administration’s authority to protect and restore our nation’s Great Waters and several amendments to appropriations bills to eliminate clean water funding.

Through NPCA’s leadership in the America’s Great Waters Coalition, we work to ensure that the protection and restoration of our nation’s waterways are viewed as a national priority. Without the safeguards provided by the Clean Water Act, our Great Waters, such as the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, and Everglades, and the national parks that they support, will deteriorate, and our restoration efforts will be unsuccessful.

As we celebrate today’s anniversary, we reflect back on how much progress has been made to clean up our waterways from the days of burning rivers. This progress must continue and not stall or reverse. Poll after poll ranks clean water at the top of Americans’ environmental concerns. We must remind our decision-makers that clean water is vital for our health, livelihoods, and economic prosperity. Hopefully, with another decade of strong support and protections we can celebrate the 50th anniversary with swimming and fishing in even more waterways in our parks and around our country.

For more information about how NPCA is working to improve the quality of our Great Waters, visit

About the author

  • Sarah Gaines Barmeyer Deputy Vice President, Conservation Programs

    Sarah Barmeyer is Deputy Vice President for NPCA’s Conservation Programs where she coordinates priority initiatives for water restoration, landscape conservation, wildlife, and clean air.