Oct. 18, 2012

Clean Water Act turns 40

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act. To recognize this environmental milestone we've asked several
BC Water News contributors and other water industry leaders to reflect on what the CWA has achieved and how the act can be improved going forward.

Phyllis Brunner, PE
BC Senior Vice President, editor of Pacific Northwest Water News

“The CWA has forced the nation to deal with serious environ-mental problems and to mitigate them for the greater good.”
The anniversary of the Clean Water Act becoming law is a milestone for all Americans and especially for those of us who have been practicing in the water field during this timeframe. Whether you have been involved in it for all or part of those years, this is a time to pause and reflect on the significance of the CWA legislation on our environment and our country. It is also a reminder of the political atmosphere of that time and democracy prevailing to adopt this important bill.

Originally vetoed by President Nixon, the leadership of that time was able to put aside political differences and advance a measure that, whether you agree or not, has had a significant impact on improving the quality of our nation's waters. While the approaches, benefits and economics can be debated, the CWA has forced the nation to deal with serious environmental problems and to mitigate them for the greater good.
Read more >

Cindy Paulson, Ph.D.
BC Senior Vice President, editor of California Water News

“I would like to see stronger linkage between regulatory programs for the CWA and the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
Like many in our business, I cut my teeth on the Clean Water Act. My first encounter with the CWA was as a graduate student, when I pored over it line by line, trying to understand areas of flexibility for dischargers to improve water quality more cost effectively.

Has the CWA been effective? Yes, largely. Over the past nearly 30 years, I have watched the CWA guide water quality improvement actions and drive tremendous progress. It has expanded from initial focus on relatively controllable “point” sources to more dispersed “non-point” sources, which of course are much tougher and more expensive to deal with. Corresponding costs to comply with the CWA have grown too, by an order of magnitude, since its inception. So, weíve made tremendous progress, but the work goes on and it will take even greater investments to continue the progress.
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Kevin Shafer
Executive Director, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District

In Milwaukee, the Clean Water Act has proven to be the single most important piece of federal legislation for cleaning our rivers and protecting Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, it sparked many legal confrontations, but, in the end, this region has been very well served by the act. Today, we are fortunate to have a sanitary sewer system that has captured and cleaned 98.21 percent of all the flow that has entered it since 1994. Looking to the future, the Clean Water Act needs to be supplemented with a Clean Watershed Act that would help this region and the country move toward a comprehensive watershed management approach to address non-point pollution.

Barbara Biggs
Governmental affairs, Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, Denver

The Clean Water Act has been an incredible success. Waters across the country that were too polluted to use now support healthy fisheries and provide important recreational opportunities. In 1972, the South Platte River in Colorado was considered dead ó there were literally no fish in the river. Today the South Platte is recognized as one of the most diverse warm-water fisheries in Colorado. But all of the easy problems have been addressed, and those that remain will be difficult ó and expensive ó to solve. We are trying to solve 21st century water quality issues with a 20th century act. To continue to make progress we need to stop counting beans ó how many segments are impaired, how many TMDLs did we complete ó and start focusing on watersheds. And we need to ensure all sources do their fair share. We also need to make sure the end points we're working toward make sense and are achievable. Finally, we need to recognize our competing environmental priorities. Bright engineers can figure out how to treat almost anything, but at what cost in terms of financial resources, energy demands, and impacts to air and climate?

Mike O'Neal, PE
BC Managing Engineer, Seattle

“Our industry was changed into what it is today.”
The CWA created a program of federal spending that mobilized, expanded, and gave identity to our engineering profession, and our industry was changed into what it is today. Practices and procedures were institutionalized through the federal regulations and guidance issued by the EPA, administrator of the CWA, and federal spending. Experts were born just to navigate the agencies and their procedures. Consultants became competitors to comply with the new procurement requirements that the local agency grantees were compelled to put in place.
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Paul Frohardt
Executive Secretary, Colorado Water Quality Control Commission

The Clean Water Act has been enormously successful in eliminating water quality problems that were common 40 years ago ó raw sewage in surface streams, rivers so polluted with industrial waste that they occasionally burned. Major challenges remain for the future. More needs to be done to develop and implement cost-effective non-point source controls. We need to learn much more about non-traditional pollutants, such as “pharmaceuticals and personal care products,” in terms of the risk they pose and the extent of their presence in our water bodies. While many major problems have been eliminated, with population growth we now have some water quality impact in many more places than 40 years ago. Along with addressing new issues, maintaining the progress that has been made will be a major challenge as population growth continues and infrastructure needs increase in the face of limited resources. As a headwaters state, it will be particularly important for Colorado to maintain the high quality of our high elevation water resources, which play a critical role in making Colorado a special place.

Gary Newman, PE
BC Vice President/Senior Design Manager, Phoenix

“Clients drive the consulting community to not only innovate, but innovate at a higher level and with confidence in the final solutions.”
I started my working career in 1979 just as the design and construction of wastewater treatment projects mandated and funded by the CWA was hitting full stride. I am proud to have participated in this historic program because I believe it was successful. The quality of our nationís waterways, which had been deteriorating for decades, improved dramatically and rapidly under this program. Though there were some failures (remember physical-chemical treatment?), there were many, many more successes as technology ramped up to meet the demand for innovative solutions (TF/SC is a great example).
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Henryk Melcer, Ph.D., PE
BC Senior Process Engineer, Seattle

“One of the disappoint-ments of the CWA was the inability to include non-point source discharges under this legislation.”
Thanks to the Clean Water Act, the science and engineering of wastewater treatment made major advances in the 1970s and in the following decade. Millions of dollars were invested in treatment plants to clean up industrial discharges.

The federal grants program that underwrote the major part of the capital cost of municipal plant conversions to secondary treatment included the advanced wastewater treatment program that allowed municipalities to take on the risk of using new technologies with the federal government guaranteeing to pay for any retrofit in the event of a failure of a specific advanced technology selected by a municipality. While there were some notable failures such as phys-chem treatment, other technologies such as the nutrient removal technologies adopted by Lake Tahoe communities were a success. It is unfortunate that subsequently the federal government withdrew support from the AWT program, ultimately leading to a decline in the rate of advancement and development of U.S.-invented WWT technologies and ceding this ground to European advancements that have occurred over the past decade.
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John Salo, PE
BC Senior Vice President, editor of Northeast Water News

During the early years of the Clean Water Act, my colleagues and I were challenged with trying to figure out how to implement the many new provisions of PL 92Ė500. It was a time when significant funding was available to monitor and model the waters of the state and to sample all the municipal and industrial discharges and to develop 303(e) basin plans and 208 areawide plans. It was an exciting time with so much to learn about these new requirements and to begin to improve water quality across the state.
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Phil Feeney, PE
BC Senior Vice President, editor of Southeast Water News

“Focus on innovative and affordable technology to make wastewater reusable is the biggest challenge in the face of diminishing water resources.”
The CWA really jump-started my career. I was two years out of college when the deluge of 208 and 201 plans, and the designs that followed, hit. It was a busy time and the industry just exploded.

Was the act successful? Fully successful? No. It was effective in that the waters of the United States are in so much better condition than they were in 1972.

Early projects addressed real treatment and water quality needs, but in my opinion many facilities were overbuilt. Today, some utilities are downsizing motors, etc., to trim back capacity to meet current demands in an effort to save energy.
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Jim Peters, PE, BCEE
BC Senior Consultant, Orlando

I distinctly remember when the environmental movement began and when the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. I had just entered the environmental field as a graduate engineer in 1971. I recall thinking that the environmental movement was a “flash in the pan” and would last a couple of years. I thought the environment would be cleaned up in about two years and I would move on to something else. However, here I am 40 years later having spent my entire career within the environmental field.

Having seen the environmental movement evolve over 40 years since the CWA was passed it seems to me that the single biggest success came early in the program when the EPA provided 75 percent grants to communities to construct wastewater treatment facilities. The EPA Grants Program resulted in a massive effort by utilities, consulting engineers and contractors. In fact, back then the utilities had to beg consultants to work for them because there was so much to be done in a short period of time. Over the course of about a decade, these plants were completed and the water quality improved dramatically primarily due to the widespread use of the activated sludge process. However, none of this would have happened without passage of the CWA and the provision of funding by the EPA Grants Program.

Julie McMullin, PE
BC Senior Water Resources Engineer, editor of Great Lakes Water News

The CWA has strived to make our waters fishable, swimmable and drinkable, and while we have not yet achieved all of these goals for all of our waters, we have made tremendous progress. This was most evident to me when the Soviet Union dissolved and the widespread pollution of that area was revealed. I kept thinking that the United States would be in a similar state if the CWA had not been implemented. Growing up, my parents would tell me stories of how the Cuyahoga River caught fire or how the river in my dadís hometown would change color depending on what color the woolen mill was using that day. We have come a long way since then.

We often take for granted that which is around us, so I hope the CWA continues to evolve and integrate today's water challenges so that it remains relevant. I also hope that funding for water projects will increase as people realize the importance of clean water for economic stability, aesthetics, public safety and life.

Rusty Schroedel, PE, BCEE
BC Executive Engineer, Milwaukee

The law had foresight in many areas and recognizing there were not enough trained professionals to accomplish the goals of the act was one that had tremendous impact on me. A portion of the law called for scholarships for students who specialized in wastewater treatment. I received one of those scholarships which paid for my graduate school. As someone with environmental interests and seeing advertisements and news stories of serious environmental damage in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the opportunity to help implement the goals of the act was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Without the Clean Water Act, I believe many of us would not have what I often call the best job in the world.

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