Today Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chair Brenda Mallory marked the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act at an event along the banks of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. After repeatedly catching fire due to pollution, the Cuyahoga River helped inspire the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act. The river has since been restored under the landmark legislation.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael S. Regan, EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael Connor, Representative Debbie Dingell (MI-12), Cleveland Mayor Justin M. Bibb, water advocates, and community leaders joined Mallory to commemorate the anniversary.
Yesterday President Biden issued a Presidential Proclamation to mark the anniversary and reaffirm the nation’s commitment to providing access to clean water. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act build on the Clean Water Act’s promise by cleaning up legacy pollution, replacing lead pipes, building more resilient water infrastructure, and tackling climate change.
Chair Mallory’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, follow:
Thank you for the warm welcome, and thank you Mayor Bibb for hosting us here in Cleveland.
It is a pleasure to be here to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act!
Yesterday, President Biden issued a Proclamation commemorating this milestone.
He noted how clean water is of paramount importance to our planet, to our nation, and to our communities—and how the Clean Water Act has been an invaluable tool in protecting this precious resource.
The President also celebrated just how far we’ve come over the last 50 years. It is truly something that we as a nation should be proud of.
In the months and weeks leading up to this anniversary, I have been asked many times, “what does the 50th anniversary mean?”
To answer that question, I think it’s important to contextualize what led up to the Clean Water Act.
The genesis of this landmark law was the public outrage over the visible, severe degradation of our planet and our communities—like the Cuyahoga River catching on fire.
Although the riverbed burned over a dozen times, that last fire in 1969 occurred during the awakening of environmental consciousness and prompted a grassroots movement calling for basic rights to clean air, clean water, and livable communities.
Spurred to action by activists and advocates across the country—and overwhelming public support—Congress enacted several hallmark environmental laws. The Clean Water Act was one of them.
It is important to remember that this did not happen overnight; rather, it was the result of years of advocacy for healthier rivers, waters, and communities.
As I reflect on the last 50 years, I am reminded of the power of a collective voice, all pulling in the same direction for a simple, but sacred idea—every person deserves access to clean water.
President Nixon said during his state of the union around that time that “Clean air, clean water, open spaces—these should once again be the birthright of every American.”
Indeed, the mission of safeguarding clean air and clean water has long been a shared American value.
And it is this value that underpins our work—50 years later—in the Biden-Harris Administration and at the Council on Environmental Quality.
While the Cuyahoga River no longer catches fire—in fact, it is now so clean that its waters are once again fishable and swimmable—we now have a planet on fire.
Clean water has always been a shared resource that we ignore at our peril, but that is especially true as we confront climate change.
We cannot separate the need for clean water from other pressing issues we face—like climate change and environmental injustice. Nor can we separate clean water from the opportunities that those challenges present.
President Biden often talks about the United States as a nation of possibilities. Many of those possibilities are rooted in access to clean water and a healthy community.
The next 50 years of environmentalism centers in so many ways around clean water.
And if we can work together to steward this resource, that investment pays off—in a healthy environment, in a healthy people, and in a healthy economy.
But the next 50 years of environmentalism must also include a more holistic picture.
It is about clean water and a changing climate. Clean water and environmental justice. Clean water and equitable green (and blue!) space. Clean water and economic development.
President Biden recognizes the opportunity we have at this moment in time. He knows that if we do this right, we can protect lives and livelihoods while making our communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
I want to focus briefly on the nexus between clean water and environmental justice.
President Biden made clear from the start of his Administration that we would put equity at the center of everything we do. For too long, our environmental policies have not benefitted all communities.
The President committed on the campaign trail to tackle this issue head on—he committed to bring folks to the table so that, together, we can develop policies that advance a healthy and safe environment for every community.
So much of our water policy in this Administration is geared toward delivering on a basic goal—striving to ensure that everyone, regardless of zip code or race or income, has access to clean water.
That’s why the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act make unprecedented investments in our nation’s water infrastructure—so that we can protect clean water for generations to come.
We have a lot of work ahead of us, and EPA is a leader and a critical partner in this work. But so are all of you.
Remember, the reason we have the Clean Water Act was because folks of all generations, races, and backgrounds came together to say enough is enough.
We need that spirit and that activism from folks all across the country if we truly want to solve the challenges we are facing today.
I know we can do it, and I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and getting to work with all of you to protect clean water for all people.