The Clean Water Act turns 50: A Q&A with WWU's Jean Melious and Angela Strecker

In June 1969, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, polluted with oil and chemicals from the city's steel mills, caught fire, and the images of city fire crews fighting a river so fouled with pollution that it could actually catch fire set in motion what would become in 1972 the Clean Water Act, federal legislation that finally focused on on improving the health of the country's rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

With the CWA turning 50 last week, Western Today chatted with WWU's Jean Melious, a professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, and Angela Strecker, associate professor of Environmental Sciences and the director of Western's Institute for Watershed Studies, about the impact and importance of this groundbreaking work of environmental regulation.

WESTERN TODAY: One of the lasting images of pre-Clean Water Act America was of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire. You know when your water is so polluted that it will actually burn, you are in trouble. What else precipitated the passage of the Clean Water Act, and why do you think it finally happened when it did? 

Jean: An earlier law, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, lacked teeth. A 1969 General Accounting Office report stated that 28 of 80 industrial plants with state permits to discharge waste on a stretch of the Mississippi River disclosed no information at all on the amount of waste they were discharging. After two years studying the situation, the Senate’s Committee on Public Works concluded that the existing law was “inadequate in every vital aspect.” And so, in the early 1970s, a bipartisan majority of Congress recognized that more needed to be done -- and even after both houses of Congress approved the Clean Water Act, then-President Richard Nixon vetoed it, saying that it was too expensive. Only two hours later, the Senate voted 52-12 to override the veto, with 17 of the votes coming from Republicans. The House of Representatives then voted 247 to 23 to override the veto, with 96 Republicans voting to override. Both parties recognized that clean water was a necessity, not a luxury.  

WT: How has the CWA made a difference in pollution in our lakes, streams, and rivers? 

Jean:  Before the CWA, most of the nation's waters were not fishable or swimmable.  Today, most -- not all, but most -- waters are fishable and swimmable. That's a big difference. 

Angela: Studies indicate that the CWA has reduced most forms of water pollution, with increases in dissolved oxygen, a key indicator of pollution, and decreases in coliform bacteria, industrial pollutants (eg. lead, mercury), and nutrients (e.g. ammonia, phosphorus).  More needs to be done, but this was a big first step. 

WT: What are some aspects of the CWA that many people don't know about that are actually very impactful? 

Jean: The Clean Water Act doesn't just protect streams and rivers from pollution.  It also protects wetlands.  Wetlands, such as marshes and bogs, were long viewed as waste lands that should be drained or filled to make them productive. Because the Clean Water Act regulates "dredging and filling" wetlands, with a goal of "no net loss" of wetlands, our country's remaining wetlands stand a fighting chance of providing habitat and helping to maintain water quality. From the perspective of plants and animals, wetlands are among the most productive lands on the planet. 

WT: Is there a shining success story that the CWA made happen?

Jean: The CWA's biggest success story in dealing with water pollution resulted from federal subsidies for sewage treatment.  A federal program funded local governments' sewage treatment facilities -- not a dramatic story, but a very necessary step to protect water quality. The program no longer exists, but while the grants were available, most of the country stopped pouring raw sewage into the nearest water body. 

Angela: A prime example of this success came from Lake Washington, in Seattle, where the city switched from dumping raw sewage into the lake to a sewage treatment plant, completed in 1968.  Water clarity improved dramatically, as a result of declines in the key nutrients that algae require, phosphorus and nitrogen.  This shift to sewage treatment in Seattle predated the CWA but was an important early demonstration of the success of controlling point source pollution. 

WT: Did the CWA fall short in any areas that now need shoring up? 

Jean: The CWA only directly regulates "point sources," which include industrial discharges and sewage treatment plants.  "Nonpoint pollution" includes runoff from agriculture, stream erosion, and stormwater in many places where stormwater plans haven't been adopted. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, agricultural pollution is the biggest source of contamination in rivers and streams, the second-biggest source in wetlands, and the third main source in lakes. That is why you may have heard about "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico, to give one example.  Reducing water pollution from "nonpoint sources" is very difficult, and the CWA hasn't proven to be very successful in addressing these diffuse sources of pollution. 

Angela: An issue that is still being decided and is currently before the US Supreme Court is which waters should be regulated under the CWA.  The CWA gave federal jurisdiction to navigable waters, called “Waters of the United States”, also known as WOTUS.  However, this definition has proved challenging.  The 2015 Clean Water Rule attempted to clarify which waterbodies should be included, but was repealed.  At the heart of the issue is whether wetlands that lack a surface connection to navigable waters, as well as intermittent and ephemeral streams, should be included under the CWA.  Scientists are nearly unanimous that a broader definition of WOTUS that includes intermittent and ephemeral headwater streams and hydrologically connected wetlands is critical to protect water quality and fisheries.


Jean Melious has taught at Western for more than 25 years; she received her juris doctor from Harvard Law School and her master's degree in Urban Design and Regional Planning from the University of Edinburgh.

Angela Strecker has taught at Western since 2019; she received her doctorate in Biology from Queen's University in Canada in 2007.