October 18th, 2013 by

By Lizzie Wasilewska

Bald River Falls, Cherohala Skyway, Tennessee

Bald River Falls, Cherohala Skyway, Tennessee. Credit: Maciej Ciupa

Today is the anniversary of the Clean Water Act (CWA), an act that set a new tone for environmentalism when it was proposed in the 1950s. At first, it was controversial: It cost $24 billion, and Nixon, who was president at the time, vetoed it. However, due to overwhelming support from the public, Senate and House, the act passed. Since then, it has significantly contributed to the health of groundwater and ecosystems in general.

The CWA includes a guideline for regulating the effects of pollutants in bodies of water in the U.S. Among other things, it made it illegal to discharge pollutants from “point sources” — which include pipes and ditches — into navigable waters, in order to increase the safety of human populations. The act also required states to set clean water standards for uses including swimming, fishing and drinking. The effects of these and other requirements were dramatic: Billions of pounds of pollution have been kept out of American rivers and the number of bodies of water that meet clean water standards has doubled since the act was passed.

Brazos River Sunrise in Texas

Brazos River Sunrise in Texas. MelRick/Flickr

The CWA positively affects entire ecosystems, beginning with the bodies of water it protects and continuing to the animals and plants that rely on the water. Healthy forests cannot exist without healthy water, and healthy water cannot exist without healthy forests: The CWA established a basis with which forest ecosystems can become more self-sufficient, as clean water nourishes trees and the nourished trees purify water.

American Forests has worked to solidify the standards of water health that the CWA established. For example, as part of the Jemez Mountain Riparian Forest Re-Vegetation project, we helped forests battle the effects of a drought that destabilized waterways and caused water to accumulate pollutants. We reforested areas along rivers and streams in order to improve water quality, which will in turn lead to a healthier ecosystem overall.