Four Decades of Cleaner Water

In the 1960s, when my family drove by all those textile mills on Interstate 85 on our way to visit grandparents in Georgia, I couldn’t imagine that our rivers wouldn’t always run brown. I couldn’t picture paddling my canoe on the Neuse River below Raleigh’s wastewater discharge.

But a visionary law and effective partnerships between federal, state and local governments have achieved more than I would have thought possible when I was a boy.

Forty years ago tomorrow, Congress passed the Clean Water Act and President Richard M. Nixon signed it into law. It is one of the most successful endeavors we’ve undertaken as a nation.

Public and private investment, new technology, effective regulation and public education have all contributed to its success. Today, more than half of the nation’s waterways meet water quality standards. In our state, waterfronts from Wilmington to Asheville have been redeveloped.

The Clean Water Act did more than just improve water quality. It has created a clean water technology industry – some of it based in North Carolina – and thousands of jobs for construction and maintenance workers. It helps sustain our travel and tourism industry and our thriving outdoor recreational industry. This is true across the country.

Yet despite its considerable success, the Clean Water Act is still a work in progress. I can now imagine capturing and reusing rainwater and stormwater for irrigation, cooling and other non-potable uses. I can see highly treated wastewater or reclaimed water becoming a valuable resource to help the Research Triangle, Charlotte and other regions meet their future water demands.

I can envision recovering the energy and nutrients in human, animal and food waste. The framework of the Clean Water Act will help us seize these 21st century opportunities.

Although we’ve made dramatic strides in reducing pollution from municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants, we’ve failed to keep up with the stormwater pollution and sedimentation generated by sprawling development patterns and poor agricultural practices. We’re still allowing tons of valuable nutrients and soil to run off our farms, towns and cities. These pollutants clog our reservoirs, rivers and estuaries with sediment and excess algae.

However, new stormwater practices, technologies and markets are developing rapidly in response to increased flooding and state regulations to reduce pollution in drinking water supplies and estuaries. Some cities have just begun to realize that capturing and reusing stormwater not only reduces pollution, but reduces demand for precious drinking water. Mecklenburg County has integrated its stormwater, flood protection and parks and recreation programs to restore Little Sugar Creek in Charlotte and spark redevelopment of the former Mid-Town Plaza strip mall.

The Upper Neuse River Basin Association is working to protect Falls Lake and the other drinking water supplies in the Research Triangle region while striking a balance between the interests of upstream and downstream communities. The Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group is planning to meet the water supply and water quality challenges facing Duke Energy, Charlotte and the other municipalities that share the water resources of the Catawba River.

In 1972, our political leaders brought us together to achieve a common national goal of clean water. Today, people in North Carolina and elsewhere have embraced the collaboration needed to protect our water resources.

And in the future, water will become even more valuable, and North Carolina needs to continue the policies that have worked to insure our water is safe and clean.

Bill Holman is director of the state policy program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. He previously served as secretary of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and as executive director of the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. This commentary was originally published in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.