Bridge over Cuyahoga RIver during sunset

The Clean Water Act at 50: A Q&A with the Burke Center for Environmental Law Director Jonathan Adler

Today is World Water Day, the annual United Nations observance that celebrates water and raises awareness of the 2 billion people living without access to safe water. As we recognize the importance of this crucial resource, Case Western Reserve University School of Law is preparing to celebrate another important event: the anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act. Passed in the United States half a century ago, the act will be the focus of an event Friday, April 8, titled “The Clean Water Act at 50: An Interdisciplinary Symposium.” 

Professor Jonathan Adler
Jonathan H. Adler

Jonathan Adler, the Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and director of the Coleman P. Burke Center for Environmental Law, played a key role in planning the event. He sat down with The Daily for a Q&A to discuss the significance of the Clean Water Act’s anniversary.

Register for the Clean Water Act event.

What makes this law and anniversary important?

What we call the Clean Water Act, also known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, represented a dramatic expansion of federal efforts to control water pollution and protect surface water quality in the United States. The law set an ambitious goal—”to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters”—and imposed expansive permitting requirements on industrial polluters and dramatically increased federal support for municipal sewage treatment.

Has the Clean Water Act delivered on its promises?

There have been dramatic improvements in multiple measures of water quality over the past 50 years. Some of these improvements began even before the Clean Water Act’s passage. Yet significant water quality problems remain. The act resulted in stringent controls on the direct pollution of surface waters from “point sources”—pollution coming out of a pipe and the like—but federal efforts to control agricultural and stormwater runoff, among other forms of nonpoint source pollution, have been less successful.

Despite its successes, why does the Clean Water Act remain controversial?

Federal regulation of water pollution often involves regulation of land use and development activities. In addition, there are ongoing disputes over whether the federal government has the legal authority to regulate wetlands and intrastate waters as part of the “Waters of the United States.” Both the Obama and Trump Administrations attempted to adopt legal definitions of the nation’s waters that would have defined the scope of federal regulatory jurisdiction, and both of those efforts were challenged in federal court.

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a separate challenge to the scope of federal regulation under the Clean Water Act that could have broad implications for federal water pollution regulation.

What will the Burke Center’s conference on The Clean Water Act 50 cover?

On April 8, the Coleman P. Burke Center for Environmental Law is hosting a full-day interdisciplinary symposium on the past, present, and future of the act, featuring a range of prominent academics from around the country. Speakers will look at what has worked well to control water pollution and what hasn’t, what legal and policy challenges to further pollution-control successes remain, and how federal water pollution control efforts can be improved. The conference will also feature remarks from Elizabeth Cisar of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water, and the proceedings will be published in the Case Western Reserve Law Review.

Can anyone attend the conference?

Yes! There is no cost for in-person attendance, though there is a fee for those who want Continuing Legal Education credit. The conference will also be livestreamed, and the video will be archived with other Burke Center programs on the law school website.

Register to attend the conference.