As the Clean Water Act marks its 40th anniversary today, many environmentalists are wistfully recalling the law's bipartisan passage as a symbol of a long-lost period of unity around combating ecological problems.
Approved by Congress on the heels of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, the Clean Water Act received overwhelming support. But even then -- at the birth of the environmental movement -- politics that today surround the landmark law were beginning to emerge.
The Clean Water Act had its roots in a 1956 cruise down the Mississippi River by Minnesota Democrat John Blatnik, the chairman of the House Public Works Committee's Rivers and Harbors Subcommittee. While Blatnik was on the river to assess its locks, dams and levees, he was struck by the river's filth.
"The Mississippi was just a cesspool, and he came back to Washington determined to do something about this," said Jim Oberstar, the former 18-term Democratic congressman who served on Blatnik's staff from 1963 to 1974 before winning his retiring boss' seat.
Blatnik crafted the Federal Pollution Control Act of 1956 to provide research on the causes and treatment of pollution, funding for wastewater treatment plants, and a conference mechanism for states along major water bodies to agree on pollution limits and cleanups.
The bill was passed and signed into law by President Eisenhower, but as the Public Health Service began to dig into the wastewater treatment problems, the agency found they were more serious than first thought, Oberstar said. So, his boss drafted a new bill to strengthen federal enforcement powers, step up the construction of wastewater treatment facilities and boost research. The legislation passed the House and Senate, but Eisenhower issued a veto.
"Water pollution is a uniquely local blight," Eisenhower wrote in his veto message, hitting a theme that resounds today in the battle over where authority to combat water pollution should rest.
"Primary responsibility for solving the problem lies not with the Federal Government but rather must be assumed and exercised, as it has been, by State and local governments," Eisenhower wrote.
But when President Kennedy took office a year later, expanding the water pollution program was one of his first goals.
"Our nation has been blessed with a bountiful supply of water, but it is not a blessing we can regard with complacency," Kennedy said in a special message to Congress on natural resources a month after his inauguration. "To meet all needs -- domestic, agricultural, industrial, recreational -- we shall have to use and reuse the same water, maintaining quality as well as quantity. In many areas of the country we need new sources of supply, but in all areas we must protect the supplies we have."
Congress delivered a new version of Blatnik's bill to Kennedy's desk that July, and this time it was signed into law.
Burning river creates consensus
But with most water utilities doing only primary treatment on waste -- removing solids, but doing nothing to the chemicals -- before piping it into rivers, lakes and streams, pollution problems persisted.
Massive clouds of soap suds floated down the nation's waterways and sometimes out of people's faucets. The Potomac River flowed out of the nation's capital carrying the stench of the 240 million gallons of waste flushed into it each day. And Cleveland's Cuyahoga River oozed, brown and oily, bubbling with gases just below the surface.
Declaring the Cuyahoga one of the country's most polluted waterways, in 1970 Time reported one of Cleveland residents' favorite jokes: "Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown. He decays."
On June 22, 1969, oil-soaked debris in the river caught fire, likely ignited by either a spark from a passing rail car or molten steel.
The blaze lasted only two hours, but its image stuck with the American public.
"Public opinion was now racing ahead of the policymakers, and there was widespread support [for legislation] among Democrats and Republicans, not just in our Committee on Public Works, but in the whole House and Senate," Oberstar said.
Over the next year and a half, Congress held hearings and collected documentation about the technologies that could reduce pollution. The turning point, according to Oberstar, came when industry began to get behind national standards for pollution control.
"They were seeing evidence of businesses fleeing to states that had lower water quality standards, and industries that would find it difficult to move were unhappy about that," Oberstar said, pointing to 3M and the American Chemical Society as key supporters.
"They created a consensus in the business sector that national standards were in the broadest public interest, the broadest economic interest, and it was a major breakthrough in crafting the Clean Water Act."
Indeed, during those early years, the divides most evident today -- between Republicans and Democrats, business and environmentalists -- were not the ones at play in Congress, according to staffers from that era.
The House pushed for a program built on the same model as the Federal Aid Highway Program, in which the federal government collected revenue and set standards but let the states handle implementation.
"The House liked that model of a federally assisted program run by the states, whereas the Senate came from the point of view of command and control," said Mike Toohey, who served on the Republican staff of the House Public Works Committee's Water Resources Subcommittee when the last major amendments to the Clean Water Act were made in 1977.
The Senate's version of the legislation set specific deadlines for implementation, whereas the House's version offered more flexibility.
"You know that old saying that the Republicans in the House are the opposition but the Senate is the enemy? Well, that was the way we felt at the time in negotiating very heartfelt views on these issues of the bill," Oberstar said.
The bill remained in conference for 10 months, until a compromise was brokered at the beginning of October 1972.
But President Nixon, who was generally supportive of the bill's environmental aims, objected to its $24 billion price tag. He had hoped to issue a pocket veto, but Congress did not leave town as expected.
According to news reports from the time, Nixon waited until 40 minutes before the bill would have become law without his signature to issue his veto.
"Legislation which would continue our efforts to raise water quality, but which would do so through extreme and needless overspending, does not serve the public interest," Nixon said in a veto message that declared the bill "budget-wrecking."
Just two hours after the president sent up his disapproval, the Senate voted 52-12 to override, with 17 of the votes in favor coming from Republicans.
"There are many, many federal programs that are wasteful, and many American tax dollars are idly spent on programs that do not produce commensurate results -- but that is not true of the federal pollution effort," said Sen. Howard Baker, a first-term Republican from Tennessee, during floor debate.
"I believe that the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 is far and away the most significant and promising piece of environmental legislation ever enacted by the Congress."
The House voted 247-23 to override -- a margin of more than 10-1 -- with 96 of the yays from Republicans and 151 from Democrats.
But Nixon didn't give up. He used his presidential powers to impound half the funds appropriated by Congress. The technique of impoundment -- which Nixon also used to withhold other federal funds, including highway money -- sparked a feud with Congress over who controlled the purse strings.
The dispute ultimately reached the Supreme Court, which in the 1975 case Train v. City of New York ruled that "the president had no authority to withhold funds provided by Congress in the Clean Water Act of 1972," and that "the president cannot frustrate the will of Congress by killing a program through impoundment."
Today, as the Clean Water Act marks its 40th anniversary, the number of waters deemed suitable for fishing and swimming has doubled. But environmentalists say the country's waters face new challenges: toxic pollutants that cannot be seen or tasted but are dangerous to human health; pollution running off farm fields and suburban streets, called nonpoint sources, that is not regulated under the federal law; and potential changes brought about by a changing climate.
Meanwhile, the landmark law is at the center of a maelstrom in Congress over the proper role for federal regulation. A number of amendments have been introduced in the House this session to return control to the states or otherwise modify the law.
Against this backdrop, few environmentalists want to risk opening up the law for revisions.
But Toohey, the former House Republican staffer, said Congress just didn't know enough about many of the big water problems when it passed the bill.
"We could get and understand the point source pollution problem pretty well and figure out a strategy to get to a solution, and that worked," Toohey said. "Less well understood was nonpoint source pollution ... and at the time there was nothing about groundwater.
"I think on the 40th anniversary it would be entirely appropriate to ask the question, 'Where should this vision go now?'"