This country’s primary law governing water pollution, the Clean Water Act, celebrates 40 years of service on October 18. For those of us too young to recall the status of waterways prior to 1972, a brief history of water quality disasters reveals the reason we celebrate the Act today. This milestone also gives rise to new questions about issues facing the future of clean water today.

Consider the Cuyahoga River in Northeast Ohio, described by “Time” magazine in the late 1960s as a river that “oozes rather than flows.” In 1968, a Kent State Symposium described one section of the Cuyahoga River as follows:

“The surface is covered with the brown oily film .. In addition, large quantities of black heavy oil floating in slicks, sometimes several inches thick, are observed frequently. Debris and trash are commonly caught up in these slicks forming an unsightly floating mess. Anaerobic action is common as the dissolved oxygen is seldom above a fraction of a part per million . The velocity is negligible, and sludge accumulates on the bottom. Animal life does not exist.”


At least 13 fires were reported on the Cuyahoga River between 1868 and 1969, but it was not alone in its burning and oozing. Most major cities dumped raw sewage directly into their rivers prior to the Act. Boston Harbor was considered a cesspool. Lake Erie was declared biologically dead. In 1965, the Potomac River was called a “national disgrace” by President Lyndon B. Johnson, so polluted that it was recommended you get a tetanus shot if you fell into the water.

In 1969, a rail car passing over the Cuyahoga River sparked a massive fire in a floating oil slick on the water. The tragic scene helped serve as an impetus for change in the face of growing national concern about untreated sewage, industrial and toxic discharges, destruction of wetlands, and contaminated rivers. So, too, did Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book “Silent Spring,” which detailed the threats pesticides posed to public health and the environment.

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 in response to the nearly unchecked dumping of pollution into American waterways. At the time, two-thirds of the country’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters had become unsafe for fishing or swimming.

While the Act was not the first federal legislation to protect water – it was actually a revision of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 – it set a national goal to reduce pollution in all U.S. waters to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of our nation’s waters.” The law called for “zero discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, and fishable and swimmable waters by 1983.”

“Many people don’t realize what our waterways were like before the Clean Water Act,” said Dr. Anna George, director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, which works to conserve native aquatic animals and their habitats in the Southeast through scientific research, ecosystem restoration, education programs and public outreach.

The Clean Water Act has proven to be a critical piece of environmental legislation safeguarding clean water, and the country’s overall water quality has improved significantly over the past four decades as a result.

However, there is still much work to be done.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 850 billion gallons of raw sewage are dumped into our waterways every year, and an estimated 35 percent of U.S. waters are still unfit for fishing or swimming. Many small streams are now at-risk for pollution and destruction.

Nonpoint source pollution remains the country’s largest source of water quality problems, according to the EPA. Nonpoint source pollution occurs when rainfall, snowmelt or irrigation runs over land or through the ground, picks up pollutants, and deposits them into rivers, lakes and coastal waters or introduces them into ground water.

The most common nonpoint source pollutants are sediment and nutrients from agriculture, aquaculture, septic tanks, urban wastewater, urban stormwater runoff, industry and fossil fuel combustion. Other nonpoint source pollutants include pesticides, pathogens (bacteria and viruses), salts, oil, grease, toxic chemicals and heavy metals.

One of the leading causes of nonpoint source pollution, agricultural runoff remains exempt from the Clean Water Act. Tennessee is one of the top 10 states within the Mississippi River Basin polluting the Gulf of Mexico with agricultural runoff, creating one of the world’s largest hypoxic zones (also known as “dead zones”) that can no longer support living aquatic organisms.

“We have come a long way in cleaning up and preventing pollution from sewer plants and industry as a result of the Clean Water Act, yet so much work remains in addressing stormwater and agricultural run-off in the Chattanooga region,” Daniel Carter, director of Environmental Studies at the University of the South at Sewanee, said. “I hope that residents of Hamilton County will recognize that something must be done to upgrade the stormwater and sewer infrastructure that continues to pollute the Tennessee River.”

Carter takes it personally when it comes to clean water. In addition to teaching, Carter runs a farm in Marion County, where he worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fence his cattle out of streams. He also recently installed a watering system designed to prevent pollution.

“While there are several other farmers throughout the Sequatchie River watershed that are doing the same, there are still cattle in the river,” Carter said. “I hope that in the coming years more farmers will take advantage of the incentives out there to help prevent pollution in our streams and rivers.”

On this 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, it is important to remain hopeful about what the future holds, according to George.

“When you realize that rivers used to burn, you realize how far we’ve come,” George said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t still have work to do, it just means we shouldn’t get discouraged.”

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. She enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on Earth. Visit her blog at