Chairs DeFazio, Napolitano Statements from Hearing on the Clean Water Act Ahead of Its 50th Anniversary
Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA) during today’s hearing titled, “The Clean Water Act at Fifty: Highlights and Lessons Learned from a Half Century of Transformative Legislation.”
Videos of opening statements from DeFazio and Napolitano can be found here and here.
More information on the hearing can be found here.
We are here today to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act. Few laws have done more for our public health and the environment.
Clean water is a basic human need and a human right. Families rely on rivers and streams to supply clean drinking water to our homes and businesses. Farmers and brewers rely on clean water to produce good food and drink. Hunters, anglers, and birders need water and wetlands to sustain wildlife and the $669 billion outdoor recreation industry, which directly supports 4.3 million jobs nationally.
The Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972 on an overwhelming and bipartisan basis. Before the Act, rivers served as little more than open sewers, Lake Erie was pronounced “dead,” and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River literally caught on fire. Thanks to bipartisan efforts over decades to implement the Clean Water Act, our rivers and lakes are cleaner and safer.
I am pleased that the Biden administration takes the legacy, effectiveness, and importance of this landmark legislation as seriously as I do. First and foremost, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provides roughly $13 billion in critical wastewater infrastructure funding to states through the Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund—the first reauthorization of this critical program since its enactment in 1987. The IIJA also invests an additional $1 billion in wastewater infrastructure improvements to address emerging contaminants, such as PFAS, in our surface waters, and provides an additional $2 billion to protect critical waters like the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Puget Sound. The IIJA funding is vital for upgrading our nation’s clean water infrastructure so that we can realistically achieve the goal of making every body of water fishable and swimmable.
The Biden Administration is also playing an active role in restoring some of the tools that made the Clean Water Act so successful. Under the previous administration, we saw unprecedented rollbacks of over 100 environmental regulations. Thankfully, President Biden’s EPA is taking action to undue some of the most egregious maneuvers of the former administration.
New rulemakings will permanently undo the “Trump Dirty Water Rule”—which was quickly overturned by federal courts as “fundamentally flawed”—will strengthen the authority of states and Tribes in protecting their water resources and will restore the longstanding role of science in the decision making process. These actions will restore the efficacy of the Clean Water Act, reduce pollution in our vital natural resources, and protect access to clean water for hundreds of millions of Americans.
Ensuring that Americans have access to clean water is not a political game—our health and livelihoods depend on it. While the Clean Water Act has been tremendously successful, we must keep working to ensure it remains effective. Additional funding is still needed to improve our infrastructure which is overburdened by the challenges of climate change and neglect.
We must be vigilant to ensure that critical investments are targeted to address historically overlooked communities and regions, including rural areas, tribal lands, and minority communities, such as Jackson, Mississippi.
We also must continue to invest in emerging technologies so that we can adequately treat wastewater and industrial discharges before they contaminate our wetlands, lakes, and rivers.
Additionally, communities across the country are experiencing record downpours and flooding or battling lack of access to clean water. Increasingly severe storms cause our sewer systems to overflow and expose residents to unsafe and polluted stormwater.
If the Act is to remain relevant and be successful for another 50 years, we must continue to fund its vital programs and enforce the law. The nation’s water quality has come a long way from the 1970s, but there is still room for improvement. Together, we must remain committed our goal of providing clean water for every American.
Today, the committee will receive testimony from a number of perspectives on the Clean Water Act and its impacts over the last fifty years. When Congress enacted this law in 1972, it recognized that the nation’s waterways were in crisis, and for too long, we had neglected our moral and financial responsibility to keep our waterways clean and safe.
In 1972, only one-third of the nation’s waters met water quality goals. Through investments in clean water infrastructure–such as the historic clean water funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law–and rigorous, science-based water quality protections, we have made significant improvements.
However, the job is not yet done.
Today, 50 years later, we have failed to achieve the Act’s goal of making all waters both fishable and swimmable, with one-third of our waters remaining impaired.
Failing to meet these water quality goals does not mean that the act has been a failure. Far from it, new investments in water treatment and enforcing water quality standards mean that more and more waterways will continue to improve.
For example, thanks to federal clean water investments and local support, local waterbodies, such as the Anacostia River in the nation’s capital—once described as the most polluted rivers in the United States—may be swimmable and fishable within the next few years.
In California, I have supported the Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan and improvements to the San Gabriel River. Because of collaborative work between locals, the state of California, and the federal government, we affirmed the Los Angeles River as a protected, navigable waterway under the Clean Water Act over a decade ago. Work continues on environmental restoration of the Los Angeles River.
Many of today’s witnesses have years of experience in working to protect waterways and provide for public health and safety. We will hear about how they work, both at the state level as well as locally, to meet the goals and objectives of the Clean Water Act to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.
Under the Clean Water Act, states play a critical role in co-administering the law and take a leading role in protecting both locally-important waters, as well as the health of upstream and downstream waters from neighboring states. This federal and state partnership has been a success for the last fifty years and has been a foundation to the improvements in our nation’s water quality.
States also play a critical role in managing the Clean Water Act State Revolving Funds that provide investments for the construction of water treatment projects. From 1972 to the present, the federal government invested over $100 billion in construction of sewage treatment plants, both in grants and through the Clean Water SRF program. When the Clean Water Actwas enacted, these clean water infrastructure investments were the largest, nonmilitary, public works program since the Interstate Highway System. Yet, because the investments are often out of sight and therefore out of mind, we often forget about water infrastructure investments until there is a problem or crisis, such as we’ve recently seen in Jackson, Mississippi.
Earlier this year, Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provided an additional $11.7 billion over the next five years for the Clean Water SRF, as well as an additional $1 billion specifically to address emerging contaminants. These investments make a big difference in cleaning up waterways, and we will hear testimony today on their impacts.
We will also hear about the important work of ensuring that all communities, including Tribal nations, benefit from the protections of the Clean Water Act. For too much of our nation’s history, disadvantaged communities are on the frontlines of pollution and contamination. Environmental injustice can take many forms and impacts many different communities.
Today, also marks a reflection point on the importance of federal leadership in protecting our nation’s health, its economy, and the health of our water-based environment. In the past two years, the Biden administration has taken steady, scientifically-based actions to restore the bedrock environmental laws that protect our air, our water, our environment, and our health.
As I have said numerous times, the previous administration ignored the bipartisan traditions of presidents dating back to President Ronald Reagan in seeking to roll-back Clean Water Act protections. Fortunately, most of these decisions were quickly overturned by federal courts as “fundamentally flawed” or in violation of federal law, and those that were not are being revisited by the current administration.
However, what the past few years have shown is that leadership matters and the successes we have fought for over the past 50 years need to be constantly protected and extended. That is the task for the next 50 years.
I want to welcome all our witnesses here this morning, and I am grateful for your willingness to share your views and perspectives on the last fifty years of the Clean Water Act.
I now yield to my great partner in the formulation of a new WRDA bill, Mr. Rouzer, for any comments and thoughts he might have on this matter.
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