How We Cleaned Up Unbelievably, Grotesquely, Flamingly Polluted Rivers

The state of the universe.
Dec. 10 2012 5:20 AM

Why Rivers No Longer Burn

The Clean Water Act is one of the greatest successes in environmental law.

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These “nonpoint” sources can be addressed, but they require enhanced authority to regulate farm practices and major funds to overhaul storm-water infrastructure. Neither seems an easy option in an era of a divided Congress and tight budgets.

And then there are threats that have emerged only in recent years. The bounty of natural gas made possible by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) may provide energy security, but it raises concerns about contamination of groundwater by methane and fracking fluids that may rise to the surface. The growth of the country’s population and increased use of personal care products and medications pose their own challenges. Recent studies have identified more than 50 pharmaceuticals or their by-products in the drinking water of major metropolitan areas. Some of the contaminants included antibiotics, anti-anxiety drugs, and hormonal medications such as birth-control pills. The U.S. Geological Survey found 82 contaminants, most of them personal-care products and drugs, in 80 percent of the streams sampled in 30 states. These emerging contaminants are present in very low concentrations, parts per million or lower, and assessing their effects on human and ecosystem health challenges the outer bounds of toxicology.

When the Cuyahoga burst into flame in 1969, it was not a huge deal to locals. After all, the river had burned almost every decade over the previous century. Today, though, such an event seems inconceivable. As Bill Ruckelshaus, the administrator of the EPA at the time of the law’s passage, later wryly observed, our waters may not yet be fishable or swimmable, but at least they’re not flammable. There remains much unfinished business, but it is important to recognize the undeniable achievements of the Clean Water Act, particularly when the very role of government in environmental protection has been under challenge as never before.


The Clean Water Act was not inevitable. It took vision and bipartisan commitment to create an entirely new way of thinking about environmental protection. Many forget that President Richard Nixon vetoed the Clean Water Act, concerned about the cost of funding treatment plants. The very next day, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle wasted no time coming together to override his veto. At a time of high-stakes partisan wrangling and gridlock, when no major environmental legislation has been passed for more than 20 years, the Clean Water Act’s anniversary gives us cause both to celebrate and to consider whether some shared environmental benefits—clean air, clean water, open space—can once again transcend partisan differences.

James Salzman is a professor at Duke Law School and the Nicholas School of the Environment and the author of Drinking Water: A History.

James Salzman is professor of law and environmental policy at Duke University and author of Drinking Water: A History.