Reflecting Back with the Clean Water Act

As we celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, I can’t help but look back and reflect at how my career has been intertwined with some of that history.

I first came to DC in 1987 to work in Congress.  I moved from Rhode Island to work for a Congresswoman (Claudine Schneider) from RI.  She was a liberal Republican House member, who was proud to be called “liberal.”  She listed her occupation prior to being a Congresswoman as “environmentalist.”  The times were certainly different.

Ronald Reagan was President, and the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate.  As I began my life as a Congressional staffer in the beginning of the 100th Congress the first order of business was to clean up something from the 99th Congress the year before.  And this was a vote on H.R. 1, a bill to override President Reagan’s veto of the Water Quality Act.

On February 3, 1987 the House overrode the President’s veto of the Water Quality Act by 401-26, and the Senate did the same the next day by a vote of 86-14.  This new law became known as the Clean Water Act Amendments of 1987.  Party affiliation mattered very little when it came to the Clean Water Act back then – the support was widespread and deep and the majority of Republicans in both houses voted to override the veto of a very popular Republican President.  Yes, times were different.  And that was the last time the Act was revised – more than 25 years ago.

After weaning myself from the dramatic rocky coastline of Narragansett, RI, and the beautiful south shore beaches, I began to discover the Chesapeake.  In the mid-1990’s I took a job with EPA at the Chesapeake Bay Program.  Part of my job was to work with Congress and the Administration to ensure that provisions of Section 117 of the Clean Water Act were carried out.  This section, simply entitled “Chesapeake Bay”, was language that authorized the Chesapeake Bay Program and was included in the 1987 bill that Congress approved by overriding the President Reagan’s veto.  Now I was actually working to implement a part of the Clean Water Act that passed Congress in my first few days in DC.

By the 1990’s, water pollution issues were different then when the Clean Water Act first became law in 1972 (with Congress overriding the veto of President Nixon). Sewage and industrial toxic discharges and spills were no longer a significant threat to Chesapeake Bay or most of the streams and rivers that flowed into it.  Those problems had been addressed and resolved by the original Act. 

In 1972 only 80 million of the approximately 200 million Americans lived in a place that was connected to a sewage treatment system.  The 60% of the nation that was not treating its sewage is now down to zero.  In less than 20 years, the most dramatic and dangerous water pollution problems in the U.S. had been fixed and put behind us.  But there were, and still are, significant pollution problems that plague our waters – including the Chesapeake.

Now, I can fast forward a couple of decades to 2012.  I am the lobbyist for the Choose Clean Water Coalition, and my highest priority is ensure that EPA is able to successfully implement new pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.  The technical jargon for these limits is TMDL, or “total maximum daily load”, which was a once largely ignored provision in the Clean Water Act, that is now being used to finish the job the first 40 years did not accomplish. 

Many of the assaults on these pollution limits and the blueprints to reach clean water goals have come from Republican House members.  Last year, an amendment to stop the Chesapeake cleanup in its tracks was offered on the House floor by Bob Goodlatte, a Republican Congressman from Virginia. 

There were only two Republican members of the House from the six state region who voted against Mr. Goodlatte’s successful amendment – Rob Wittman from Virginia and Michael Fitzpatrick from Pennsylvania.  Those who care about clean water in our region view them as heroes.  They stood up to their colleagues and their party leaders and we are rightfully thankful. 

But it also makes me sad to think back to my first few days in Washington when 401 House members, including the vast majority of Republicans, voted to override a Republican President’s veto of the Clean Water Act.  That was the norm.  Members of Congress did what was right and what was best for their constituents and the nation.

How old do I sound when I say, “Boy, those were the good ole’ days.”

By: Peter Marx
Posted at: 12:28 pm on October 16th, 2012