Doug Siglin

Forty-five years ago today, the federal Clean Water Act was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon. 

Given the ugly, sad state of today’s federal politics, it is amazing to look back at the bipartisan political consensus that led to the Clean Water Act. Members of both parties in both houses of Congress spoke eloquently in favor of it. President Nixon, who was not a great environmentalist (despite ending up with a pretty good record of accomplishment) said “The pollution of our rivers, lakes and streams degrades the quality of American life. Cleaning up the nation’s waterways is a matter of urgent concern to me.”

Even ultra-conservatives like Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater supported the Clean Water Act. How times have changed.

45 years later, the Clean Water Act’s work is far from done, but our rivers and streams are much, much better than they were. Cleaning up streams and rivers has led to the restoration of the biological web of life in many places, as well as huge economic revitalization in towns and cities across America.

The picture above is the Anacostia River sometime in the late 1970s. It is disgusting. But even then it wasn’t as bad as it had been decades earlier, when the Surgeon General of the United States reported that the river was so foul that 98% of workers at the Navy Yard that year had been sick with malaria!

Sometime next year, the massive underground sewage overflow tunnel system being built by DC Water will go into operation. When it does, the District’s downtown “combined” sewer system, which was built around the same time that all those workers had malaria, will no longer spew untreated sewage into the Anacostia eighty or eighty-five times a year. Fecal bacteria in the river will drop dramatically, and the river will be safely usable a lot more often for boating and other forms of recreation – maybe even swimming. This will be a major step forward for quality of life in the District. 

And why will we have this? Because the federal Clean Water Act required it, and the Anacostia Watershed Society, the Sierra Club, and several other local environmental heroes brought legal action seventeen years ago to make it happen.

Because of this huge step forward for clean water, and because 2018 will also be the 100th Anniversary of the federal law setting aside more than 1200 acres of land around the Anacostia River as public parklands, many of us are working towards branding 2018 as The Year of the Anacostia. All 13 members of the DC Council, under the leadership of Ward 6 Councilman Charles Allen, have introduced legislation to officially designate the Year of the Anacostia. The National Park Service, DC Water, the DC Department of Energy and Environment, and Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties, which contain most of the tributary streams of the Anacostia River, are all on board.

The Anacostia River Corridor is the heart and soul of the District. The job of cleaning up the historically polluted river through our heart and soul isn’t finished yet, and we need to keep aggressively moving forward. The next important tasks are to get the old industrial chemicals out of the bottom sediment and several sites on the banks, and to implement widespread measures to keep new pollution from the streets from getting in. 

But raise a glass (of clean water!) to the Clean Water Act for and offer a word of thanks as it celebrates its 45th birthday.  We’re a better city, and a better country, because of it.