Breath of Clarity

Course Reflection: Is the Clean Water Act effective?

Original Post by Joey Durr:

Most effective rule: Clean Water Act

Although I think that the Clean Air Act has been the most effective environmental law in terms of human health, I actually think one of the more effective acts to the environment itself has been the Clean Water Act. First, to consider what is effective, we have to see the state of such environment before and after the law was implemented. Although I sound like a broken record in talking about Northeast, Ohio, it is one of the most effected areas by water pollution. It’s estimated that the Cuyahoga river caught on fire dozens of times. I’m sure we all realize how preposterous that is: water…catching on fire. And its not just the Cuyahoga, dozens of rivers including ones like the Flint River caught on fire before the Clean Water Act was enacted. Lake Erie was so polluted that it was projected to become biologically dead. Fish were dying by the millions in rivers and lakes. Mercury was being discharged into the Detroit river by 10-20 pounds per day and the rate of wetlands loss from 1950-1970 was approximately 450,000 acres per year (Devine)

Fast forward to today where Lake Erie and the waterways around it are recovering. Thousands of people travel to the lake every year to fish its plentiful waters. Specific industry standards are currently predicted to prevent more than 700 billion pounds of toxic pollutants annually from being dumped into the nation’s waters. In a 40 year anniversary report in 2012, more than 60 percent of the nation’s waters meet the CWA fishable and swimmable goal. In 1972, only 1/3 were considered up to these standards (Center for Effective Government). And although there is a lot of work to do, we have to consider how far we’ve come from decades of industry waste. And when I say industry waste I mean no one even caring where they dump the worst possible waste produced. Rivers catching on fire is no longer a common occurrence and Lake Erie is now a summer spot for thousands of people annually. These are just a few examples of how much water quality has improved over the years.

Least effective rule: National Environmental Policy Act

I think that this rule was the most disappointing for me. With its name, I thought it would be an act that I really appreciated. But then we quickly come to learn that this law is only in place asking agencies to take environmental factors into account (Mungler). There’s no real enforcement here, its simply only asking these agencies to consider the environment. In my opinion, there is so many easy workarounds to this act if agencies want to. Although it does make agencies consider environmental effects, it also makes it hard to tangibly assess the change that this act has created. I’m not discrediting it in its whole, but due to the nature of the act, its hard to see what its really improved. How do we measure what agencies decided to consider the environmental impacts because of NEPA and then acted on it? Therefore, for its vagueness and overall lack of real enforcement, I find this law to be the least effective.


Devine, Jon “Clean water act 45, despite success its under attack” Accessed June 2, 2020 (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)

Center for effective Government “Celebrating a public protections milestone: the 40th anniversary of the Clean water act” Accessed june 2, 2020 (Links to an external site.)

Mugler, Larry G. 2019. “Environmental Policy Law – Week 8 NEPA Lecture.” Accessed June 2, 2020 Lecture, University College, Denver, CO, April, 2019.

My Comment:

Thanks for recognizing the progress from the CWA, considering the state of waters before 1972 compared to after. For this discussion, I researched the CWA for my own post because I love going on hiking/camping excursions and appreciating the beauty of clear water. However, while I would say the CWA is a more beautifully dramatic story in terms of bringing flammable waters into great condition as well as making more areas fishable and swimmable, it’s not a more effective law than the Clean Air Act (CAA) in terms of helping the environment in itself (Environmental Protection Agency). We are able to physically see the clear water in areas that have been cared for. Also, there are all sorts of photographs and videos showing people enjoying the recreation opportunity the element brings. However, the CAA brought gains to the environment in itself that are difficult to see. The CAA also got rid of many consequences from the industrial age’s pollution and is going to be a very crucial launching point as the realities of climate change are more clear to the human race and our government hopefully is interested in taking serious, positive action. I also feel passionate that laws truly benefitting human health also strongly support the environment in itself. Is there a situation in which they don’t go hand in hand? It’s an interesting topic considering it’s relevance to the widely accepted statement “we are all one”. Even putting the yoga aside, perhaps showing our actions to decrease greenhouse gas emissions help both the environment and the human species is a crucial point to make in generating climate change action. Preventing global warming is not only about saving the planet. Rather, it’s about allowing the human species to continue living on.

There definitely are remaining challenges to keeping our waters clean even before Trump took office. The National Resources Defense Council’s website goes into detail about how lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and wetlands are still heavily covered with contamination (National Resources Defense Council 2017). It is widely debated whether the money put into the CWA is worth the benefit from merely a mathematical standpoint (Keiser and Shapiro 2018). Essentially it’s not cost-effective while results of the CAA from 1990 to 2020 reveal the act’s benefits exceeds costs by a factor of 30 to one (Environmental Protection Agency). However, simply putting the CWA in place has led to many of the fascinating bills we researched for the Water Legislation discussion through and has protected some of the individual waters that have special places in our hearts. It led to the safe drinking water standards of the 1970s, wetlands protections in the 1980s, and amendments including control of toxic pollutants and stormwater discharges (Walter 2012). With the overwhelming challenge of purifying all the nation’s waters, the CWA needs to refine its procedures to be even more effective rather than rolling back the strictness. For example, there needs to be increased focus on pollutants from agricultural sources while WOTUS is designed to decrease environmental regulations for farmers. Overall, it’s important to highlight successes of the CWA because we do still need it to be functioning at maximum capacity.


Environmental Protection Agency. n.d. “Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act 1990-2020, the Second Prospective Study.” Accessed June 2 2020.

Environmental Protection Agency. n.d. “Progress Cleaning the Air and Improving People’s Health.” Accessed June 2, 2020.

Kaiser, David and Shapiro, Joseph. October 2018. “How the Clean Water Act has Served the Environment and Economy.” Accessed June 2 2020.

National Resources Defense Council. 2017. “Clean Water Act at 45: Despite Success, It’s Under Attack.” Accessed June 2 2020.

Walter, Laura. March 2012. “Water is Worth It: EPA Celebrates 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act.” Accessed June 2 2020.

Joey’s Comment:

Thanks for taking the time on a thoughtful response. While there is no question about the impact of the Clean Air Act and its effectiveness, I wanted to choose an argument that would be different from most in this class.

Although there are many waterways that still need to be cleaned up, I’d argue that point by the large amount of air pollution that occurs in the US. Outside of the current stay at home orders, there is usually a smog so bad in LA that it will change the color of your car. People in the city are reporting that they are able to see parts of the city and landscape that they once never saw before. This rains true in multiple cities in the US. So while CAA has been effective, there are still plenty of parts within the United States that deals with an abundance of air pollution.

While I agree that the CAA is by far the most important act as we tackle climate change, I also think its important to note the importance of cleaning up the water and the effects it has on our overall environment. Water and air are the most fundamental and important parts of life, but we did not see the same kind of mass death from air quality as we did water quality. We also need to consider if these rivers weren’t cleaned up, the effects it would have on all wildlife. Animals no longer have bathing or drinking water, and humans alone would have to take even further measures to obtain clean, usable water. Look at the Flint Water Crisis, where citizens didnt have access to clean water and are now suffering irreparable mental and physical damage. We also need to consider the potential large loss of wetlands in this process and the use of cleaner river water in the production of food. While I think the effects of clean air will be way more important going forward as we take on climate change, I believe that we would have suffered a lot more loss of life in the short run if waterways were not cleaned up. Therefore, I think to date, the CWA has been more effective in its goal to clean up the waterways and ultimately create a better environment.

My Comment:

Definitely, makes sense- thanks for selecting a unique act for most effective. I agree there are still severe pollution issues in the U.S. even after the CAA was established. That’s so intense that smog changes the color of cars in LA! In addition to visibility increase from COVID-19 in U.S. cities, Dhauladhar mountain range locals are reporting being able to see sections of the Himalayas for the first time and stars they have never seen before (Marat 2020). Considering this information about India is from April 14, I imagine the visibility has only increased as the stay at home orders have remained in place.

The existence of life does depend on clean water both for direct consumption and food production. Both the CWA and CAA are effective in terms of their combined positive impact on sustaining life because absolute inaction to mitigate the damage humans already did would have led to significant death. As I spoke about in the previous comment, in terms of cost-effectiveness, the CAA surpasses the CWA. However, overall effectiveness is debatable depending on the variable being measured. For example, CERCLA is effective in terms of statistics showing positive environmental impact from the completed cleanups because the projects are so large-scale. So, even though CERCLA has only cleaned up a small fraction of its NPL sites, its impact is still significant. However, I still identified it as ineffective because it clearly has areas to be improved upon that we discussed after reviewing the Task Force Report. That being said, it also has so much potential to make even more positive impact. Then, I compare CERCLA to another law that is perfectly carried out but was only designed to have a relatively small positive environmental impact. Which law is more effective? Is effectiveness measured by a law’s ability to achieve its targets or reach the entirety of its potential scope? Is a law’s effectiveness based on its ability to recognize a problem and need for action, the theoretical logical of its ideas for solution, or the quality of enforcement?

What other factors make a law effective?

Regardless, access to clean water is a major issue our nation faces as we move forward. While the CWA focuses on cleanliness, water shortage is a major issue. Researchers claim Lake Mead, currently supplying water to 22 million people in Arizona, may be dry by 2021 (The Water Project). However, water shortage does not only exist in super hot areas. A study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service reveals, by 2071, up to 96 out of 204 U.S. fresh water basins are expected to face shortages and may not be able to meet demand. Irrigated agriculture accounts for roughly 75% of the annual consumption of water from these basins, and cutting-down that water use by only 2% can prevent shortages in 32 of the 96 threatened basins (Wilkerson 2019). Similar to CERCLA, with just minuscule changes to the policy framework of major laws such as CWA or CAA, there is potential for massive impact. Environmentalists suggest low-cost but immediate solutions, such as digging ponds or underwater receptacles, which already help farmers in China manage drying waters (The Water Project). Another reason for fresh water basin reduction is climate change effects rain patterns and water basins rely on rainfall to nourish the rivers and tributaries that flow into them. Further, high temperatures due to climate change also makes water quickly evaporate. Water shortage is an inevitable problem because no resource is unlimited and other issues causing climate change impact water supply. So, these problems don’t necessarily exist because an act is ineffective. Still, evidently, the CWA is a law demanding attention. With a depleting resource, we need to be sure we’re keeping the waters we have clean. Is there a certain way the CWA was created or carried out that led to the successes it achieved thus far? How can we extrapolate its successful components as we move into the future?


Marat, Elias. 2020. “Himalayas Visible for First Time in 30 Years From Some Parts of India as Lockdown Sees Drop in Pollution.” The Mind Unleashed. Accessed June 4 2020.

Wilkerson, Jordan. 2019. “Future Widespread Water Shortages Likely in U.S.” Harvard University. Accessed June 4 2020.

The Water Project. n.d. “Water Scarcity- the U.S. Connection.” Accessed June 4 2020.