Marking 50 Years of the Clean Water Act

By Meghan Hill, Education Programs Manager

When discussing Lake Champlain (which we like to do here at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum), it’s impossible to avoid the topics of water quality and lake health. This discussion is especially important this year as 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act.

What is the Clean Water Act?

This landmark piece of legislation established water quality standards and regulations of pollutants for navigable bodies of water within the United States. Ultimately, it ensures protection for all bodies of water that have been used, are currently used, or could be used for interstate or foreign commerce. Dumping pollutants in these bodies of water is only lawful if the business or municipality has received a permit to do so from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Office of Water, which is responsible for implementing and overseeing the Clean Water Act. According to the EPA, “The Office of Water (OW) ensures drinking water is safe, and restores and maintains oceans, watersheds, and their aquatic ecosystems to protect human health, support economic and recreational activities, and provide healthy habitat for fish, plants and wildlife.” These over-arching protections ensure that bodies of water like Lake Champlain are kept clean so that they can be safely enjoyed by fishermen, paddlers, swimmers, and those who rely on the lake for water.

A black and white photograph of the Cuyahoga River on fire in 1952 with a line of flames that can be seen on the water and the majority of the image showing large billowing clouds of dark smoke.
The Cuyahoga River on fire in 1952. Photo by Frank Aleksandrov, from the Cleveland Press Collections, courtesy of the Michael Schwartz Library Special Collections, Cleveland State University.

History of the Clean Water Act

It’s a common misperception that 1972 was the start of water protection in the United States. There was an earlier version of the Clean Water Act called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, which was the first attempt at national regulation of water pollution. Growth of America’s urban centers and increasing industrialization during World War II had led to widescale pollution, which this act sought to end. This attempt was largely unsuccessful because the Federal Water Pollution Control Act did not entirely prohibit pollution, nor did it make federal enforcement possible.

Water pollution continued largely unchecked until several horrifying examples of the extent of water pollution in the United States were publicized and public awareness started to increase. One example of this is the Cuyahoga River Fire on June 22nd, 1969. Oily debris on the surface of the river, a bi-product of manufacturing that took place in the city, ignited and the resulting thirty minute long fire caused approximately $50,000 in damage. Residents of Cleveland were used to this sort of event as it had happened a number of times over the course of the previous century, but the story was picked up by Time and National Geographic and drew national attention.

The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in January of 1970, only seven months after the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969. The first Earth Day was celebrated just three months after that and the following year brought about large-scale changes to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act until it became the Clean Water Act.

Campers learn how to work with a seine net as part of the Museum’s summer camps.

How does the Museum continue this work?

Here at the Museum, we are extremely passionate about lake health and wider environmental issues in our region. One of the ways that we work to keep Lake Champlain clean and healthy is through education.

Our education programs seek to teach the next generation of environmental stewards. One of the ways we do this is through Lake Ecology field trips, in which students from schools all over the area can learn more about what makes a body of water “healthy.” Another way is through water- and watershed-focused camps and expeditions. When we teach kids and teens to appreciate Lake Champlain and all of the opportunities for joy it gives us, we plant a seed of lake stewardship.

Want to Learn More?

If you’re interested in learning more about the impact of the Clean Water Act on our waterways, head over to our Clean Water Act digital exhibit.