Modernizing the Clean Water Paradigm

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is one of the most successful environmental statutes in US history.  It has led to a significant reduction in pollution from point source dischargers, provided important investment to the nation’s clean water infrastructure, and helped municipal clean water utilities become engines of innovation.

And yet today, 45 years after its passage, the CWA is rapidly showing its age with its inadequacy in addressing new, increasingly complex clean water issues.  Water quality challenges such as excessive nutrients, climate change, emerging contaminants, and the development of new technologies were never contemplated by the Act’s authors, and its command-and-control structure is proving incapable of adapting to modern water quality needs.  

In short, we are stuck using a mid-20th century statutory and regulatory framework to try and address 21st century challenges.

The time has come to modernize the clean water paradigm in a way that preserves the strongest and most successful aspects of our current structure, while also creating a new suite of tools and resources to address the water quality realities of today and those of the coming decades.  Developing a modern statutory construct for clean water will be a critical part of this effort, but it must go beyond this as well.

Modernizing the paradigm will also require clean water utilities redefining their relationships with regulators, as well as engaging stakeholders and the public in new ways to elevate the importance of clean water.  NACWA is working to advancing this effort by:

  • Creating a Modern Statutory Construct – The water quality and quantity challenges of the 21st century can only be addressed through a modern statutory approach with the following critical elements:
    • Management of Water Quality Based on a Watershed Approach – As technology-based controls alone become increasingly ineffective to address water quality impairments, we must focus on a holistic management approach that examines all sources of impairment in a watershed, and how to achieve the best water quality at the lowest cost.  This includes a greater focus on diffuse sources of pollution, such as agricultural non-point sources, and a more comprehensive approach to addressing the underlying causes of water quality impairment that looks beyond the current pollutant-by-pollutant framework.  A watershed construct will also provide the best flexibility to address the critical but still unknown impacts of climate change on water quality.   
    • A Unified Approach to Drinking Water and Clean Water Management – At a time when water quantity, water quality, and water investment are increasingly blurring the lines between drinking water issues and clean water issues, the existing statutory divisions between the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act are rapidly becoming outdated.  A modern “one water” statutory approach is needed that integrates both drinking water and clean water in the same way that the public has always viewed water – as one common resource to be managed in an integrated fashion.  Increasing reliance on water reuse to supplement water supplies underscores the need to explore the intersection of these two statutes.
    • Empowering Utilities and Communities to Prioritize Clean Water Compliance – While federal law provides an important framework for utilities to protect clean water and public health, local communities are best able to prioritize their investments and map out a path to meet their clean water obligations.  Federal law must recognize this reality, initially through codification of Integrated Planning principles, but also through more robust statutory provisions such as the creation of true integrated, watershed permits and longer-term discharge permits.  
    • Support and Encourage Innovation – Regardless of current law, clean water utilities will continue to innovate and advance new ideas to perform better.  But doing so will be much easier under a statute that encourages and incentivizes new thinking.  A modernized clean water statute must explicitly recognize that it will not be able to foresee or predict all the water issues that may emerge in the future, and it must explicitly direct EPA and other federal agencies to foster innovation.

      NACWA is working aggressively in both the short term and the long term – with policy makers of all political stripes and interested stakeholders – to advocate for this new statutory paradigm and make it a reality.
  • Creating New Relationships with Regulators – Municipal clean water utilities are the single most significant contributor to the CWA’s success.  Working closely with state and federal regulators, these public utilities have collectively achieved an astonishing level of pollution reduction, both at their own facilities and at thousands of industrial facilities regulated by utilities under the federal pretreatment program. 

As a result of this hard work, municipal clean water agencies have earned the right – and the responsibility – to be treated as co-regulators in ensuring environmental and public health protections.  This does not mean public utilities cease to have any meaningful regulatory oversight.  But local utilities have earned the right to have direct input into the regulatory structure that they operate under, based on a foundation of continual self-evaluation, self-improvement, and partnership with the states and Federal Government.  NACWA is working hard with our members, the states, EPA, and Congress to forge this new construct.

  • Creating New Relationships with Stakeholders and the Public – Achieving a modern clean water paradigm can only occur if a wide spectrum of stakeholders and the public truly understand the need for a new approach and support its creation.  Recognizing this reality, NACWA is building a consensus for change by engaging a diverse group of stakeholders – including environmental activist groups, farmers, industry, states, conservationists, academics, and others – to exchange ideas. 

It is only by sharing thoughts on a modern clean water paradigm that we can build a vision for the future that has the chance of becoming a reality.  But most importantly, NACWA is committed to engaging the public in a broad conversation about the importance and value of water, and the need to elevate water as a national priority – because it is only through this public support that creating a new paradigm will be possible.

The last five decades have seen remarkable progress in improving the quality of our nation’s waters.  But so much more remains to be done, and the public clean water community is best positioned to advance the needed progress.  A new clean water paradigm is within our grasp – and NACWA is prepared to help lead the way toward a new and better clean water future. 

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