clean water act blog

The Clean Water Act Turns 50!

Cuyahoga River Fire

50 years of the Clean Water Act


Fifty years ago, the United States entered an era of environmental reckoning. In 1969 alone, pollution killed 26 million fish in a Florida lake; the Santa Barbara Oil Spill fouled the ocean with nearly 100,00 barrels of crude; and the Cuyahoga River caught fire. These disasters and others in the 1960’s captured national attention as scenes of environmental tragedy were broadcast into homes. For the first time in the nation’s history, citizens across the country recognized the impacts of pollution on public health and the economy. The U.S. government responded by establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 with a priority to institute legislation on water pollution. Over the next decade, Congress passed a series of landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and more.

What is the Clean Water Act?

As water pollution crises and stories of ecological devastation in America spilled into national news, public uproar drove Congress to enact landmark Clean Water Act (CWA) legislation in 1972. The CWA ensures the public’s right to waters that are safe for swimming, drinking, and fishing. These rights form the foundation of Miami Waterkeeper’s mission. Simply stated, the CWA makes it unlawful to pollute into “waters of the United States” from a traceable point source without a permit. But what is polluting? And what is a “water of the United States”? These questions have been debated for the last 50 years and could fill up a year of class in law schools around the nation. Even today, cases on these topics are being heard at the Supreme Court.

Who implements the Clean Water Act?

Congress put the EPA in charge of the CWA. The EPA, in turn, tapped State and Federal partners to help implement different sections of the Act’s long, complex set of laws and chapters full of regulations. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has authority over dredging and filling in wetlands. States, on the other hand, oversee the discharge of pollutants by industry, such as scrap metal yards, paper mills, and concrete plants; and local governments have oversight of their municipal stormwater systems.

However, like many of our key environmental laws, the CWA doesn’t work without public involvement. Congress gave the power to citizens to stand up for clean water by commenting -- and also litigating -- on behalf of their right to clean water. In short, Congress gave ordinary citizens  the ability to sue polluters. This is a core aspect of Miami Waterkeeper’s work.

The Clean Water Act Turns 50 - and yet there is still so much more to do… 

Fifty years later, half of America’s waterways are still designated as “impaired’, meaning that they do not meet the set standards that define ‘clean water’ under the Clean Water Act. A March 2022 report found that half of our nation’s waterbodies cannot be used for swimming, fishing, or drinking due to pollution.  That doesn’t mean that the CWA isn’t working, as almost certainly our waterways would be significantly more polluted without it, but it does mean that we have a long way to go to fulfill the intent and the goal of the law.  

Florida’s Clean Water Issues

Visiting a beach or waterway is the number one activity of Florida's tourists and undeniably the biggest draw for our $112 billion in annual tourism revenue. Almost half a million people are directly employed in our ocean economy. And all of this—Florida's tourism industry, job market, recreation, environment, and even Florida's culture—depends on having clean water. Yet, fifty years after the CWA was passed, Florida takes the number one spot for total acres of lakes impaired for swimming and aquatic life (873,340 acres) and second for total lake acres impaired for any use (935,808 acres).

Biscayne Bay has been designated  impaired for chlorophyll-a since 2017, Chlorophyll-a is an indicator of nutrient pollution. Excess nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, have been implicated in the fish kills and seagrass die-offs that have caused  portions of the Bay to become dead zones. These nutrients often enter the Bay and its waterways through stormwater runoff, sewage leaks, fertilizer, and septic tanks. In particular, our municipal stormwater systems are poorly managed and are largely out of compliance with CWA requirements, resulting in polluted point-source discharge emanating from many municipal outfalls into our waterways.

Furthermore, the EPA recently took away the dredge and fill program from the Army Corps Jacksonville District, which was issuing permits for dredging and filling of most local wetlands; the EPA handed this program over to the State of Florida. This move has been widely criticized as streamlining development projects to the detriment of wetlands, as the state does not have the staff needed to provide proper oversight under this program.

Miami Waterkeeper and the CWA

Miami Waterkeeper’s mission is founded on the rights given to citizens by the Clean Water Act; namely, the right to swimmable, drinkable, and fishable water. Miami Waterkeeper uses a unique approach combining science, outreach, advocacy, and the law, including the CWA to achieve clean water. Here are just a few examples of our CWA-driven work: 

  • Stopping a 10 million-gallon offshore sewage leak 
  • Ensuring public participation in major clean water rulemakings
  • Authoring numerous technical comment letters for CWA initiatives
  • Publishing a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive stormwater report card in 2022 that audited the permit compliance of all municipal stormwater operators in Miami-Dade County

Miami Waterkeeper’s ongoing work to protect and defend the CWA: 

Miami Waterkeeper works toward a vision of swimmable, drinkable, and fishable water for all. These are rights granted to us by the Clean Water Act, but environmental laws work only if people are willing to stand up for them along with us. Empowering the community, we use science, advocacy, and outreach to protect our waterways from pollution and prepare South Florida for the future.  By standing up for clean water, we are making Miami a shining example of resiliency for the world -- water win by water win.

Here are our current Clean Water Act-based initiatives:

  • Wetland Dredge and Fill Permit Challenges: Wetlands, referred to as the kidneys of our landscape, are invaluable in Florida. They filter our water, provide flood protection, and support biodiversity. Wetland protection is particularly key in Florida, and that’s why we joined Earthjustice to challenge the EPA’s decision to turn over the wetland dredge and fill permitting program to the state. Since the State assumption of this in early 2021, Miami Waterkeeper, Earthjustice  and co-plaintiffs have been litigating to restore federal control of this crucial Clean Water Act program.
  • Industrial Pollution Challenges: Runoff from industrial properties, like scrap metal yards and bus depots, is regulated under the Clean Water Act.  We have found that compliance with the CWA permit program for polluting industries has been low, allowing contaminated stormwater runoff to reach waterways.  The state is in charge of enforcing these important rules, but we are finding that they haven’t been paying much attention, either.  This leaves a lot of pollution to go unchecked -- and that’s where we come in. Because of the power that the CWA gives to citizens, Miami Waterkeeper can go to court on behalf of our community’s right to swimmable, drinkable, and fishable water. With our legal partners, we are evaluating industrial facilities for potential litigation against the biggest industrial polluters that are harming our waterways illegally.
  • Stormwater Pollution Challenges: Miami-Dade County's stormwater systems are one of the most significant pollution sources for Biscayne Bay, directing land-based contamination into local waterways and Biscayne Bay, including grease, herbicides, pet waste, fertilizers, debris, and more. Stormwater systems are designed to collect and convey stormwater, are regulated under the U.S. Clean Water Act, and must receive a Florida Department of Environmental Protection permit to operate. Miami Waterkeeper and Everglades Law Center spent nine months developing a rubric aligning with 20 basic MS4 permit requirements. Among all 35 municipalities in Miami-Dade County, we found that the average grade for stormwater permit compliance was a C-. Almost 60% of these municipalities had no map of their stormwater system and just under half (47%) had no written stormwater management plan. Of those that had written plans, some were deeply outdated, ranging back to 1999. Our report shows a wide disparity in both compliance and effort on the part of local governments, as well as a pattern of neglect  and little meaningful enforcement by the state of Florida.

 Our stormwater report has already led to newly proposed regulations and improved coordination between local governments. We are now working with Miami-Dade county and the municipalities to clean up      their stormwater systems. Our goal is to have all municipalities reach full compliance and to improve the new MS4 permit terms that result in cleaner water.

  • Reasonable Assurance Plan: Biscayne Bay is not meeting the standards set under the Clean Water Act to be considered “clean water”. As a result, the County must propose a plan to get Biscayne Bay to meet clean water quality targets again. This proposed plan is called a “Reasonable Assurance Plan” or RAP. If the plan is properly designed and implemented, Biscayne Bay’s pollution levels should decrease. Miami Waterkeeper is closely tracking this process and providing input at every stage of the RAP to ensure that the right science and community engagement is taking place to make this an impactful  water quality tool. 

What can you do?

Partner with Miami Waterkeeper! We rely on members of the public to uphold our mission of swimmable, fishable, drinkable water for all. Here are just some of the ways you can join us and make a difference:

  • Report pollution. You can become a pro at pollution reporting by taking our 1,000 Eyes on the Water training! If you see a suspicious plume or oil sheen, you may have spotted a Clean Water Act violation. You can learn how to identify and describe environmental incidents like these through the 1,000 Eyes on the Water virtual training that covers CWA violations as well as algae blooms and fish kills. Send us the details through our website or our pollution reporting app (available for both iOS and Android) and we will convey the information to the right regulatory agency that has authority to cite violators.  
  • Join us at public meetings. Be part of the civic process and make your voice heard! Meet us at County Hall and join us at the dais to hold our elected officials accountable. Whether at county or at the municipal level, comments made on public record go a long way in bringing attention to critical clean water issues. We will give you advance notice of these critical meetings through our social posts.
  • Sign our action alerts. We understand that traveling to different commission meetings can be time consuming. As an alternative, it takes just a minute to sign on to our action alert online platform that sends your messages directly to elected officials. It’s that easy! For example, we created an action alert to tell City of Miami commissioners to vote “no” on an ordinance that would ban the planting of mangroves in public parks. Over 1,000 people signed our action alert and as a result, the commissioners dropped this ordinance from future consideration!