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Clean Water Act Celebrates 50 Years!

Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act! 

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was established in 1972 after media coverage of events like 1969’s Cuyahoga River Fire in Cleveland opened many citizens’ eyes to the reality of how polluted the waterways of the United States had become. Prior to this act, there was very little enforcement of water quality standards, and pollution from growing industrial, urban, and agricultural sources went largely unchecked.  

The CWA makes it illegal to discharge any pollutant into any waterway without a permit.  As the primary enforcement body for CWA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set wastewater standards for industry and developed national water quality criteria recommendations for surface waters. To this day, the Clean Water Act remains the most important piece of legislation protecting the health of our nation’s waterways.  

With the overall goal of restoring and maintaining the health of all US waterways, interim goals of the 1972 CWA included making all waterways “fishable and swimmable” by 1983 and to have zero water pollution discharge into waterways by 1985.

The Clean Water Act has done a good job controlling pollution from industrial and municipal dischargers, and since 1972, the health of US waterways have improved dramatically.  However, to this day, not all of its original interim goals have been met.  The complex and cumulative issues of pollution originating from smaller, individual sources still negatively impact our waterways, and not all illegal discharging is being controlled.  As we celebrate the 50th anniversary and all the positive impacts of the Clean Water Act, we also recognize that it is up to us– as a nation, as states, as communities, and as individuals– to make sure that the protections and original intentions of this vital act are being upheld. 

Want to know what you can do? Here are just a few ideas.

  • Get to know the water near you.
    • Knowing what waterways are near you and what impact they have on you or your community is important. What we do with our water impacts all those downstream. 
    • There are many tools to help you identify water in the area– a Friends’ favorite is StreamStats. With this tool, you can make connections with what waterways are in your backyard and see the drainage basin for that particular waterway and other statistics related to your selected stream. 
  • See something. Say something.
    • If you see something of concern on or in a waterway near you, don’t be afraid to speak up. It can be anything from someone dumping a substance, to an area with a lot of litter, or the presence of dying or diseased fish or wildlife. If you feel that it may negatively impact water quality, please reach out. Here at Friends, we are happy to support you in resolving issues or connecting you to those who can help. Contact us at if you see something concerning in your part of the watershed. 
  • Join a water monitoring program.
    • Citizen science can assist our state and federal-level water protection agencies greatly. Much of the data that is collected about our waterways comes from volunteers. Let us know you’d like to get involved by signing up to volunteer with Friends.
  • Become a Friend’s member.
    • Here at Friends our mission is to keep the North Fork of the Shenandoah River clean, healthy, and beautiful through advocacy, community action, education and science. We can accomplish our mission through the support of our members. Support the river by becoming a member.