Fifty Years Later: 5 Clean Water Act Success Stories

The Clean Water Act has contributed $1 trillion to meet clean water goals. Which particular waterways have been restored by the Act?


In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act with the intention to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waterways. This law represented an astounding step towards protecting our Nation’s waters by requiring states to set clean water standards to provide benefits for drinking water, public health, recreation, and wildlife. More than fifty years later, the Clean Water Act has funded approximately 35,000 grants totaling $1 trillion invested towards curbing water pollution. As a result, 700 billion pounds of pollution have been diverted from America’s rivers and the number of waters that meet clean water goals has doubled since 1972.

Here are five environmental success stories that the Clean Water Act helped create:

  1. 1 Cuyahoga River

    In 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River apocalyptically caught on fire for the thirteenth time, cementing  ignited an outrage from environmentalists across the country and the river became a cleathe River’s status as one of the most polluted waterways in America. The incidentn-up priority with the subsequent Clean Water Act. The Cuyahoga River has made great strides since then, due to sewage treatment plant grants and more stringent permitting systems brought forth by the Clean Water Act. In 1967, not a single fish could be found in the river between Akron and Cleveland. Today, more than 70 species can be found in its waters and in 2019, the Ohio EPA declared that these fish were safe to eat. The Cuyahoga River has now been designated as an Ohio Scenic River, an American Heritage River, and an Ohio Water Trail, which encourages recreational activity to return to the formerly hazardous river.

  2. 2 Monterey Bay

    Despite being known as the “Serengeti of the Sea,” for its diversity of wildlife, California’s Monterey Bay has battled a number of environmental health hazards. Before the Clean Water Act, individual communities had their own sewage treatment plants, often discharging sparsely treated wastewater as little as 300 feet offshore. The passage of the Clean Water Act catalyzed the formation of Monterey One Water, a centralized agency for water supply and sanitation that vastly elevated wastewater quality standards. The Clean Water Act also provided funding to conserve land upstream and prevent runoff into the Bay’s many freshwater tributaries. Thanks to the improved state of Monterey Bay, Monterey county welcomed 4.6 million visitors in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, generating $2.98 billion in visitor spending and employing over 25,000 people in the tourism industry.

  3. 3 Potomac River

    Before the Clean Water Act was passed, 240 million gallons of waste flowed into the Potomac River daily. The river was considered a severe health hazard, enough so that anyone who fell into it was advised to get a tetanus shot. The Clean Water Act’s limits on sewage and other pollutants, coupled with regional cooperative efforts and improvements at the Blue Plains wastewater facility in Southwest DC, greatly improved water quality. Less than five years after the Clean Water Act was passed, there was a noticeable lack of blue-green algae that had covered the upper estuary a decade earlier and largemouth bass had returned to the river. More recently, the D.C. government has put forth plans to utilize Clean Water Act grant funding to replace its outdated sewage and stormwater system, a project estimated to reduce nitrogen discharges to Chesapeake Bay by one million pounds annually.

  4. 4 Bristol Bay

    Bristol Bay’s sprawling watershed of streams, rivers, wetlands, and tundra houses one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world. Within this Alaskan ecosystem lies the world's most valuable wild salmon fishery in the world, supplying almost half of the world’s sockeye salmon, supporting 13,000 jobs, and creating $1.5 billion in economic activity.  Bristol Bay is the location of the proposed Pebble Mine, an open pit gold and copper mine that would permanently destroy 2,200 acres of wetlands and waters and 105 miles of streams. Tribal leaders and conservation groups have long advocated for the EPA to exercise its veto power endowed by section 404c of the Clean Water Act. In May 2022, the EPA issued a draft proposal to use its Clean Water Act veto to permanently block the mine, with a final determination expected by the end of January 2023.

  5. 5 Des Plaines River

    By the early 1960s, it was hard to find any fish at all in Illinois’ Des Plaines River; between 1959 and 1964, common carp and goldfish, both invasive species, constituted 97% of the river’s catch. Over the past fifty years, the Des Plaines River has transformed from a degraded stream to a healthy urban fishery thanks to improvements from the Clean Water Act. The Act allowed Chicago to form the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, a project that will capture nearly 20 billion gallons of sewage and urban runoff during storms once complete. In 2018, just one year after a large storage reservoir became functional, the amount of fish in the Des Plaines nearly doubled. This increase also comprised socioeconomically valuable sport fish, with the proportion of sport fish rising from less than 1% between 1959–1964 to 69% between 2010–2013.

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Olivia Amitay

Olivia is a recent graduate from Boston University where she earned a B.S. in Public Relations and a minor in Environmental Analysis & Policy. Hailing from Silver Spring, Maryland, Olivia’s proximity to D.C. helped foster her passion for effective environmental policy and communication. In her free time, you can find Olivia exploring music for her radio show, browsing local thrift shops, or cultivating her house plant collection.


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