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The 25th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act

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Saturday, October 18, 1997

I thank all of you for coming here today, on the 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act -- to celebrate a quarter-century of one of the most historic environmental initiatives of modern times -- and to talk about the new actions we must take, to preserve and extend its purpose for the next quarter-century.

The people in this room understood the importance of clean water from the very beginning. It is about more than a precious natural resource. It is about more than our lakes and rivers and streams. It is about the fabric of life itself.

We remember a time when the Potomac River was choked with algae. When Lake Erie was dying. When too many coastal waters were degraded. When too many urban rivers and beaches were open sewers. When too many communities didn't have clean, safe water they could depend on.

Twenty-five years ago today, America had a change of heart -- and a change of course. Instead of polluting our waters, we decided to clean them. Since the passage of the Clean Water Act, we have stopped billions of pounds of pollution from flowing into our rivers, lakes, and streams; and doubled the number of waters safe for swimming and fishing.

This change of heart was formalized by our laws, but it was carried out by our people. People like Vicki Deisner of the Ohio Environmental Council. Vicki grew up in the Cleveland area and remembers the Cuyahoga River catching fire. For most of her adult life she has worked to clean up and restore the Cuyahoga and other rivers and, as a health professional, she has worked with young children affected by toxic pollution. Now she's working on a pollution prevention project with businesses located along three Ohio rivers -- finding cost-effective ways to prevent pollution, and sharing them with smaller businesses.

Because of people like Vicki, the Cuyahoga River has been revitalized, the harbor where it meets Lake Erie is alive with boaters and tourists, and Lake Erie itself is now home to a $600 million fishing industry.

Today, the EPA is releasing a report of 25 of these success stories -- including the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie -- to document our success in restoring the nation's waters through the Clean Water Act.

These case histories tell stories that will make us proud. But problems persist. For all our success, there are still dangerous run-offs of toxins and pollutants into our streams; communities that don't have the knowledge or the resources to fully protect their water; regions where the wrong kind of development threatens our hard-won progress. We need to recommit ourselves to the vision of the Clean Water Act -- and we need new action to move it forward.

First, we must do more to protect the public health. People shouldn't have to worry about whether the water they drink is safe, of whether the fish in our waters can be served to our children.

Second, we must do more to prevent polluted runoff from contaminating our waters. The recent outbreaks of pfiesteria in Maryland, Virginia, and other states demonstrates just how critical this is, and how much more we must do to fully protect our water.

Third, we need comprehensive approach to water quality -- one which brings together all levels of government, and all concerned members of our communities, to share ideas and approaches, to pool resources, and to develop a truly comprehensive strategy to safeguard our water.

Of course, a strong vision is not enough. We must act to make that vision a reality. That is why I am directing the relevant federal agencies to take a series of actions that will preserve and extend a quarter-century of success, to make our water even cleaner and more pure for the next 25 years.

We know phosphorous and nitrogen have become a special risk to our water and marine life, so we will move quickly to establish water quality standards for those pollutants in every part of the country. We know some states need help protecting their coastal waters, so we will make it a priority to help all 29 coastal states put strong plans in place. We know that improving our water quality requires more wetlands, not fewer -- so we will set a goal of achieving a net gain of 100,000 wetlands acres every year. We know even a trace of mercury in food is a threat to our children and families, so we will renew our efforts to reduce the contaminants that threaten fetal and childhood development.

And we know that the best ideas come not from Washington, but from the communities that are confronting these challenges every day. So we will seek input and opinion from all of you. We specifically invite the Congress to work with us in strengthening and codifying a new national commitment to Clean Water.

This is not the first time we have extended this invitation to Congress. In President Clinton's first term, we spelled out our principles for strengthening the Clean Water Act. Our principles were right then, and they're right now -- especially when it comes to controlling non-point source pollution. Unfortunately, the 104th Congress went in the opposite direction --advancing legislation that was rightly called the "Dirty Water Bill," and would have weakened the law, reversed our gains, and fouled our water. Now both houses are considering so-called "property rights" legislation that would hurt state and local efforts to protect water quality. We ask Members of Congress, in honor of 25 years of overwhelming national support for Clean Water, to abandon these dubious bills on property rights, and instead take up bills that protect our clean water rights -- to work with us, as they did in passing the Safe Drinking Water Act last year, to strengthen and reauthorize the Clean Water Act.

Our joint action on this issue -- as much as any other -- will test the moral character ofour country. An old scriptural passage asks: "who among you, if your children ask bread, will you give them a stone, or if they ask a fish, will you give them a serpent?"

We might also ask: who among you, if your children ask for fish, will you give them a contaminated fish; if your children ask for water, will you give them unclean water? You see, protecting our water is one of the deepest obligations we have -- to ourselves, to our children, and to our future.

Let this day mark not just an anniversary, but a renewal of that obligation. Let us all heed the lessons Chief Seattle, who asked us: "Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? ... the earth is our mother. What befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth ....and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator." Thank you for listening -- and keep up the good work.

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