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Experts Gather for Symposium on 50th Anniversary of Clean Water Act

Panelists celebrate cleaner rivers and discuss ongoing challenges from non-point source pollution, climate change, and environmental injustice.

In the 50 years since the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 became federal law, rivers have stopped burning, once-polluted waterways have reopened for recreation, and the pace of U.S. wetland loss has slowed. On September 29, national and international environmental experts gathered at American University to reflect upon the legislation’s successes and discuss the remaining challenges to water quality.

“In many ways, the Clean Water Act and the events leading up to it were the birth of the environmental movement,” said Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “We had reached a point of crisis. We had to prioritize forward-looking planning for the environment, but also had a lot of work to do to clean up [existing] damages.”

“It wasn't cheap,” added G. Tracy Mehan III, executive director of government affairs at the American Water Works Association. “It wasn't easy, and it wasn't fast, but it would be inaccurate to say we haven’t had substantial progress.”

The day-long event was sponsored by the AU School of Public Affairs (SPA) Center for Environmental Policy and the AU School of Communication (SOC) Center for Environmental Filmmaking, along with American Rivers and the Clean Water for All Coalition. It concluded with the premier of Upstream, Downriver, a 30-minute documentary directed and produced by SOC’s Maggie Stogner; the film detailed the CWA’s accomplishments and challenges, and emphasized the continuing need to protect its policies.

“Being from the Midwest, I’ve heard a lot about agriculture and pollution, so it was really interesting to hear about it from leaders in the field and what they are doing in their separate organizations and collaboratively,” said attendee and environmental policy student Lindsay Selfridge, SPA/MPP ’24.

Experts from government, academia, and nonprofits discussed the legacy of the CWA, which passed with a Congressional override of President Richard Nixon’s veto. While Mehan expects no further legislation on water integrity, he pointed out opportunities for the EPA to optimize existing CWA provisions and identify additional financial resources.

Panelists applauded how the CWA helped shift the public mindset on dumping human and industrial waste into waterways, but encouraged vigilance and ongoing advocacy. The law is unevenly enforced, underfunded, and does too little to help the underserved and communities of color, which are disproportionately hurt by the impact of climate change. Adrienne Hollis, vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization with the National Wildlife Federation, spoke of the need to include people affected by environmental injustice in policy discussions. Jeffrey Madison, director of technology media production in the AU School of Communication, cofounder of nonprofit The Climate Inc., and cohost of the Climate Daily Podcast, also discussed ways to increase awareness and engagement. He noted recent surveys that show that people of color care more about climate change than their white counterparts, and are more likely to take action to fight it.

While the CWA curbed pollution via dumping, or so-called point source pollution, it did little to alleviate non-point source pollution, or that resulting from agriculture and transportation. Moira Mcdonald, environment program director with the Walton Family Foundation, encouraged farmers to use sustainable practices, such as planting cover crops in the fall, to reduce soil erosion and pesticide runoff. She called on consumers to apply financial pressure on food companies to buy from climate-friendly growers.

Fred Tutman, CEO of the Patuxent Riverkeeper Center in Maryland, said community-based activists, rather than professional environmentalist groups, must push for the enforcement of water regulations.

“I don’t know that people understand the seriousness of the stakes,” Tutman said. “A riverkeeper is a custodian of people’s hopes and aspirations for these rivers. Our job is to be cheerleaders and activists. We’re out there to make systemic change, because I don’t think we have the tools otherwise.”

Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers, moderated a discussion about the impacts of climate change on water resources as global warming intensifies droughts, forest fires, and floods. Mark Magaña, founding president and CEO of GreenLatinos, called on individuals to drastically change their energy-consumption habits, and on policymakers to identify more natural mitigation solutions.

“Like all of our environmental laws, we have much to learn from the history of the Clean Water Act and how to improve it,” said Dan Fiorino, director of the SPA Center for Environmental Policy. “The problem of non-point source pollution and the need for better land use policies are, to me, among the important lessons we should take from these discussions.”

The event included a video message from U.S. Congressman Donald McEachin (D- VA), a 1982 American University graduate with a bachelor’s in political history, who celebrated the CWA’s successes but called for more to be done.

“Despite the tremendous progress we have made, there are so many water resources that do not meet the clean water standards,” McEachin said. “Access to clean water is an environmental justice issue and one that must be addressed expeditiously. Every American in our country has a right to safe and reliable drinking water. In order to ensure that right is protected, we must continue to protect the health of all water systems in our country.”