The Fight Continues: The Work & People of Clean Water

The Clean Water Act significantly improved water quality, and it was just the beginning. It did not regulate safe drinking water and parts of the Act needed amendments later to address new or different issues and to clarify definitions.

The fight for clean water continued after the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and continues today. At every level, people play a critical role in this conversation. State and federal officials in elected office must uphold and create new policies to continue ensuring a healthy water and future for everyone. Towns, municipalities, and organizations work on wastewater plans and tactics to protect clean drinking water. Individuals work locally and engage in sustainable and protective actions for their water.

Further Laws & Clean Water Act Amendments

  • The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 regulated public drinking water. Specifically, it gave the EPA power to regulate the drinking water for the public by setting standards for drinking water to protect against naturally-occurring and man-made contaminants. Together, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act helped our country work towards the national goal of “fishable, swimmable, and drinkable” water. 
  • The Clean Water Act Amendments of 1977 focused specifically on control of toxic pollutants. It required industries to meet “best available technology standards” for specified toxic pollutants by a certain date.
  • The Water Quality Act of 1987 required states to address nonpoint source pollution, like snow melt, changed the funding system to manage this kind of pollution, and required industrial and municipal sites to obtain permits for nonpoint source pollution.

Image: Mary Workman holds a jar of undrinkable water that comes from her well and has filed a damage suit against the Hanna Coal Company, Steubenville (Jefferson County, Ohio), 1973. U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-12346. Erik Calonius, photographer. Project: DOCUMERICA

Local Policy & Protection for Lake Champlain

The Clean Water Act set the stage for further policy and action. Here in the Champlain Valley, state governments and officials have worked across state and international borders to ensure the protection of Lake Champlain.

Image: Senator Patrick Leahy leads Vermont and New York lawmakers to introduce a bill to reauthorize the Lake Champlain Basin Program, June 2022. Image courtesy Lake Champlain Basin Program.

The Lake Champlain Special Designation Act

In 1990, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, along with Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords and New York Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alfonse D’Amato, recognized the national significance of Lake Champlain and hoped to secure special federal funds to study and preserve it. Together, they introduced the Lake Champlain Special Designation Act of 1990 (LCSDA) as another amendment to the Clean Water Act.

The LCSDA was included and passed as part of the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act, expansive legislation that also used federal funds to protect other waterways such as the Great Lakes. Commitment to protecting the nation’s lakes bound some of our elected officials together, who used their power and status to pass federal legislation.

Senator Leahy was instrumental in the creation and passage of the LCSDA and continues to be an advocate for the protection of Lake Champlain and other watersheds. In addition to developing the Lake Champlain Basin Program, Senator Leahy has secured funding for preventing the spread of invasive species in the water and forests, advocated for ocean conservation, and hosted environmental summits on the stewardship and cleanup of Lake Champlain.

Image: Signing of the Lake Champlain Special Designation Act in 1990. Image courtesy of the EPA.

The Lake Champlain Basin Program

The Lake Champlain Basin Program was created in 1990. It is an international coalition between the United States and Canada devoted to protecting the water of Lake Champlain.

The Lake Champlain Basin Program (LCBP) was borne out of the 1990 Lake Champlain Special Designation Act. The program was a coordinated effort among the federal, state, and local governments, who joined together to develop a plan to improve, restore, and maintain the water quality of Lake Champlain. With international cooperation from Quebec, LCBP researches the lake, educates the public on how to play a role in protecting the lake, and funds and implements efforts to protect the inhabitants and water quality. The LCBP publishes a State of the Lake report for all citizens of the Champlain Valley to understand the health of their lake. You can download and read the latest report from 2021 for free on their website: https://www.lcbp.org/news-and-media/publications/state-of-the-lake/

Image: LCBP Steering Committee members sample science education programs aboard the Lake George Association’s Floating Classroom. Courtesy of LCBP.

People Power

As we’ve seen, individuals have always been at the forefront of advocating for environmental change and water protection. Meet some of the people in the Champlain Valley and across the nation who have done and continue to do this work. What action will you take to protect clean water?

Image: Iris Hsiang, a youth member of the Vermont Climate Council, speaks at a youth rally in November 2021 at the Vermont Statehouse. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger.

George Perkins Marsh George Perkins Marsh

“Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.”

Known as the father of the environmental movement, George Perkins Marsh was a diplomat, scholar, and Vermont congressman who inspired the nation with his 1864 book Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. He observed the environmental costs of industries like mills and dams, and saw that deforestation led to runoff and the pollution of lakes and streams.

Marsh advocated for individuals to repair the environment and protect nature for future generations, ideas echoed in the Clean Water Act over 100 years later.

Tom Jorling Tom Jorling

“I am grateful and proud that Congress, over the President’s veto, enacted a durable, highly effective program to restore and protect the nation’s aquatic systems.”

Tom Jorling worked as a government official on the drafting, passage, and implementation of the Clean Water Act. As Minority Counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Public Works and one of the architects of both the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts in the 1970s, Jorling witnessed firsthand the importance of government action on environmental issues.

He continues these efforts today as an attorney and professor living in the Adirondacks, educating others on the vigilance and stewardship needed to protect healthy aquatic systems. 

Kelley Tucker Kelley Tucker

“We can all be informed stewards, caring for our waterways and learning what they need to be healthy and whole.”

As Executive Director of the Ausable River Association Kelley Tucker is continuing the work of the Clean Water Act in the Champlain Valley today by working to protect waterways using science-based restorative solutions. Tucker advocates for giving people the knowledge and tools to protect the waterways where they live, while encouraging people to add their hands, voice, time, and skills to their community.

How can you get involved? Become a volunteer to pull invasive plants, clean trash out of our lakes, or restore native grasses on streamsides.

Iris Hsiang Iris Hsiang

“Young people’s role in this work is vital because it’s going to be our future. It is our lives and our communities that are impacted.”

The Clean Water Act remains imperfect and one of the most pressing threats to water quality is climate change. Younger generations will be impacted by this and have an important role they can play in protecting waterways.

Iris Hsiang, while she was a senior at Essex High School in Vermont (in 2022) and community organizer, is at the forefront of youth climate activism. As a youth member of the Vermont Climate Council and founder of the Youth Organizing Coalition, Hsiang works with other young activists to advocate for state laws addressing the climate crisis. Her efforts focus on how climate change disproportionately affects younger generations and especially marginalized communities.

Hsiang encourages people in younger generations to share their stories and get involved in their communities to advocate for change.

Current Debates & Threats to Clean Water

The Clean Water Act, like many other laws, is imperfect. The Act couldn’t foresee all the possible threats to clean water. While the Act improved water quality, there continue to be discussions around clean water today.

Advocates place less emphasis on individual action and instead called on the government to fully enforce the law. The country’s waterways still face major threats from climate change, invasive species, runoff, waste, and pollution. Unsafe drinking water continues to plague the nation, with minority communities unfairly and disproportionally affected. Strong government action on major threats to clean water will help to safeguard our waterways.

While our elected officials continue to debate and take action about clean water, individuals and communities contribute to the efforts to keep the water clean too. Towns and municipalities are working to meet new wastewater regulations, while individuals and businesses are mowing their lawns higher, avoiding the use of lawn fertilizers, and preventing runoff. Our actions in our everyday lives impact lakes, streams, and connected waterways.  ​​

Just as Congress ushered in the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, landmark legislation that helped to protect our waterways for years to come, individuals, communities, and elected officials today have the responsibility to uphold these policies and continue to protect our water, air, and environment. We all play a part in keeping our water clean.

Supreme Court Waters of the United States & the Supreme Court

After the passage of the Clean Water Act, debates continued over federal regulation of waterways and water quality. Hoping to solve a decades-long debate about what constituted federal regulated waterways in the Clean Water Act, President Barack Obama put in place the “Waters of the United States” rule in 2015 to broaden federal protections for wetlands, streams and small waterways not previously protected under clean water legislation. Environmentalists long argued that the pollution and damage of the small waterways affected drinking water and the ecosystem of the wetlands and required federal protection.

In 2017, the EPA, under the administration of President Donald Trump, rolled back these federal protections, arguing that the “Waters of the United States” rule was an example of federal overreach and harmed small businesses and landowners across the country. Those who agreed with President Trump also advocated for state control over waterways, as opposed to federal regulation. In 2021, the Biden administration filed a legal action to begin the process of repealing the rollbacks from Trump’s presidency, aiming to restore federal protection of small waterways and wetlands.

Image: United States Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C., 2019. Courtesy of Marielam1, Wikimedia Commons.

Flint Water Protest

Despite the large victory symbolized in the passage of the Clean Water Act, the law did not immediately remedy all water problems or relieve waterways from pollution. Protest groups continued to advocate for stringent amendments to the law and government action, sparking a new environmental justice movement in the 1980s led by marginalized communities. Systemic racism intertwined with government inaction on water treatment, inspections, and harmful industrial dumping practices in communities led to devastating water-related tragedies.

These issues continue through today, exemplified by the Flint Water Crisis in 2014. City and state officials in Flint, Michigan switched the drinking supply to the corrosive water from the Flint River and failed to treat it, causing lead from unchecked pipes to leach into the water supply and harm thousands of primarily African American adults and children. The environmental justice movement in the 1980s and the Flint Water Crisis in 2014 demonstrate the uneven application of the Clean Water Act, the need for government officials to uphold the legislation, and the power of protest.

Image: Flint Water Protest, Photograph by Shannon Nobles, Wikimedia Commons.

Microbeads and foam floating in yellow-brown colored water Other Issues & Threats

How can you help fight other current issues and threats face clean water and the continuing work of the Clean Water Act? Being aware is the first step.

  • Permit violations: Due to limited resources at all levels, the Act is driven by complaints, and often relies on concerned citizens to report permit violations and issues of water quality in their area. 
  • Nonpoint source pollution: Nonpoint source pollution, such as snowmelt and rainfall leading to runoff, remains one of the leading causes of water quality issues.
  • New issues: Legislators continue to respond to new data about new threats to water by passing laws like the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.
  • Climate change: Climate change and global warming continue to threaten our waterways and ecosystem, requiring the government to be flexible and nimble to changes.

Image: Microbeads and foam beads float in a sample of water from Lake Champlain.


How We Got Here: A Brief History

The Clean Water Act: What to Know