Why the Clean Water Act no longer holds water

Dirty water.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

What's the best water you've ever drunk?

It might sound like a silly question (at least until you drink the tap water at the Phoenix airport and set the bar for the worst). But I know my answer: It came out of a river on Mt. Rainier during a backpacking trip, a crystalline glacier melt so cold it hurts your teeth and so crisp that you're tempted to drink it straight out of your cupped hands, bypassing the necessary precaution of a filter. Voss could never.

But that idyllic pleasure of drinking out of a mountain stream — much less escaping the summer heat by diving into a suburban lake, fishing for dinner in a favorite hidden cove, or tubing down a river with your cousins — are becoming rarer and rarer experiences (at least to have safely) due to the continued bludgeoning of the Clean Water Act.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The problem is, you can't just chip away at something like "clean water," for which there can be no halfway measure. After all, nobody wants to drink "lightly polluted" water or swim in "mildly contaminated" rivers.

Nevertheless, the latest blow to the Clean Water Act came Wednesday when the Supreme Court delivered a 5-4, unsigned order that at least temporarily reinstates a Trump-era rule limiting states' and tribes' abilities to block the dumping of pollutants into America's waterways. But while the decision is as ghoulishly terrible as it sounds, the Clean Water Act has long been riddled with loopholes that prevent it from achieving fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters. Fifty years after the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, "around half of all lakes and rivers across the country … [are] classified as 'impaired,'" High Country News writes, "meaning that their fish are inedible, their water undrinkable, they're unsafe for humans to swim in and inhospitable to aquatic life."

Americans like to think we can have it both ways; taking pride, pleasure, and enjoyment from our natural lands while also balking at attempts to regulate those places and resources. But there's nothing like water to prove the folly of such thinking; after all, would you want to drink from a well that contained "some" arsenic? Probably not.

At a certain point, then, we need to make up our minds — do we want clean water, or don't we? — and not riddle the ensuing protections with so many loopholes that they're about as effective as a dam made of mesh. Instead, we should broaden a more uncompromising, steely resolve to other easily wishy-washy environmental goals too.

As it stands, corporate interests run amok in America, making their sludgy money while pointing to the shell of the Clean Water Act as proof that the environmentalists got their way. How's that for leaving a bad taste in your mouth?

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us