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Enviro groups say Clean Water Act is under attack

Joost Nelissen

Nearly 40 years ago, the U.S. government began setting federal standards to clean up water pollution with the passage of the landmark Clean Water Act. Now, many environmental groups say that law is under attack and they’re worried about consequences.

In the late 1960s and early '70s in the U.S., water pollution had become hard to ignore,  says Josh Baldi, with the state Department of Ecology.

“Rivers on fire, dumping raw sewage in our lakes and bays – you know, it was that type of very clear, evident pollution that people reacted to,” he says.

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 and President Richard Nixon signed it into law with the goal of making all U.S. waterways safe for swimming and fishing.

While no law is perfect, Baldi says 40 years into the Clean Water Act, the nation has made tremendous strides. He says Lake Washington is in many ways a poster child for the success of the Act; it was once nick-named “Lake Stinko” because it was polluted by raw sewage. 

New threats

Now, Baldi says, the sources of most water pollution are the less obvious runoffs of urban life.

“And it’s that federal law mandate to address storm water that’s really helping drive the discussion to clean up these more urban areas – not from point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants or industrial facilities. But trying to understand how we get a handle on the pollution that’s coming from all of us.”

Baldi says Washington actually has a complementary clean water law that is in some cases stronger than the federal law. But there’s widespread worry in the environmental community about a bill that recently passed the U.S. House of representatives.

The Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act would take away federal authority – essentially gutting the landmark law of 1972 — says Chris Wilke, Executive Director of  Puget Soundkeeper Alliance

“Each individual state would have a race to the bottom as they would seek to dismantle the Clean Water Act protections that have in large part brought back many of our waterways,” he says.

Wilke’s group and eight other environmental non-profits in western Washington signed a letter to Congress urging a no vote on the bill that many have nick-named the Dirty Water Act. 

It passed the U.S. House of Representatives with a vote of 239-184 on July 13th.  Congressman Dave Reichert was the sole Republican from Washington opposing the act. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Doc Hastings supported it; Cathy McMorris Rogers was not present.

Supporters of the bill say it would help save jobs  they say are threatened by federal environmental regulations. 

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