President Celebrates 50 Years of Clean Water Act

October 17, 2022 by Dan McCue
President Celebrates 50 Years of Clean Water Act
President Joe Biden addresses DNC summer meeting at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act. 

In observance of that milestone, President Joe Biden on Monday signed a proclamation celebrating how it revolutionized “America’s responsibility to protect and restore the vital waterways that sustain our communities, our economy, and our ecosystems.”

For those too young to remember, the act was introduced in 1972 as S-2770 by Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, two years after he had successfully championed the Clean Air Act.

His intention was to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, which was the first major U.S. law to address water pollution issues, but was never adequately enforced.


Though he initially believed he had the support of Republican President Richard Nixon, who reportedly helped outline many of its aggressive provisions, Nixon ultimately balked at its $24 billion price tag, calling it “extreme and needless overspending,” and vetoed the bill.

The very same day, Oct. 17, 1972, Muskie mounted an override effort, pointedly asking his colleagues, “Can we afford clean water? Can we afford rivers and lakes and streams and oceans which continue to make possible life on this planet? Can we afford life itself?”

With Public Law 92-500 — the Clean Water Act — the Senate voted to override Nixon’s veto. 

The next day, the House of Representatives also overrode the veto and approved the bill.

Today the Clean Water Act remains the primary federal law in the United States governing water pollution. 

Its objective is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters, while recognizing the responsibilities of the states in addressing pollution and providing assistance to states to do so.

It also provides for publicly funding improvements to wastewater treatment facilities and to maintain the integrity of coastal wetlands.


“Before this landmark legislation, America’s waters were in crisis, often flooded and even on fire with toxic pollution and cancer-causing contaminants,” Biden said in his proclamation on Monday. “Industrial waste and sewage threatened our drinking water, and wetlands disappeared at an alarming rate. 

“The Clean Water Act met these challenges head-on, setting and enforcing national water quality standards, restricting pollution, and investing in wastewater treatment and better wetlands management,” he said.

Five decades on, the president continued, “our nation’s waters are dramatically cleaner. Once dead rivers and lakes are now flourishing with wildlife. People have returned to boat, fish and swim. Sacred waters that tribal nations have relied on for generations are clean again. This is a testament to the tireless partnerships that the Environmental Protection Agency has forged with state, local, and tribal governments. 

“It is a powerful tribute not only to the activists who first sounded the alarm, built a movement, and fought to pass this powerful law but also to the Americans everywhere who have since done so much to help enforce it, safeguarding our waterways and taking on polluters in court,” Biden said.

But the president went on to say that despite the successes that have occurred since the act’s passage, “We still face serious threats to clean water.”

These threats, he said, include climate change-driven droughts, rising sea levels and long-standing environmental injustices.

“That is why my administration restored federal protections to hundreds of thousands of streams, wetlands, and waterways and is working across the federal government to combat pollution from deadly per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” the president said. 

“Our historic bipartisan infrastructure law makes our nation’s biggest-ever investment in water, clearing legacy pollution, helping replace lead pipes across the country, and building more resilient infrastructure so that every child in America can turn on the faucet at home or school for safe drinking water.

“The Inflation Reduction Act takes America’s most aggressive climate action ever, helping to protect the world’s waterways long into the future.


“As we celebrate the anniversary of this law, my administration is more committed than ever to continuing its legacy, providing access to safe water, and restoring a healthier planet. The Clean Water Act is a powerful reminder of Americans’ ability to make change for the better when we work together,” Biden said.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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