Commentary: The Clean Water Act at 50

The city of Cleveland and the Cuyahoga River

By Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells

October marked five decades since leaders came together to make a monumental change, impacting our daily lives ever since.

And no, I’m not talking about the 50 years that my agency, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, has been protecting public health and the environment. October 18, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

Here in Greater Cleveland, the Cuyahoga River winds its way through a national park and our city, as it makes its way to Lake Erie. On June 22, 1969, it happened. After enduring years of abuse, a spark from a passing railway car landed on the oil-covered surface of the river. The Cuyahoga River caught fire just before noon and thrust Cleveland into the national spotlight.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga’s burning captured the public’s imagination and ignited a growing environmental movement. More than a century after the river’s pollution was first noted, the Cuyahoga River became an international symbol of environmental neglect.

Many people don’t know that our river burned a total of 13 times. More importantly, most people don’t know that rivers across the country were burning regularly. But it’s that one fire, a small fire in comparison, that changed Cleveland forever and changed the environmental and public health narrative of our nation.

Soon after this incident, leaders across the country – led by Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and his brother Congressman Louis Stokes – established the Environmental Protection Agency and legislation that would eventually become the Clean Water Act.

When I think about the Clean Water Act, I think about three things: regulation, funding and expertise.


One of our country’s most successful statutes, the Clean Water Act established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States and gave EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry.

Climate change will continue to impact utilities as we experience wetter, warmer and wilder weather. We must consider these impacts to our infrastructure, managing billions of gallons of annual wastewater and stormwater flows and how they affect our systems in the future.

As we develop our communities, we must consider smart land use such as the reduction of impervious surfaces, reestablishment of our tree canopy, incorporation of green infrastructure and establishment of riparian setbacks and vegetated floodplains where none exist today. By keeping stormwater onsite, we can continue to do what the Clean Water Act set out to do five decades ago: protect our nation’s waterways.

But it’s critical that we have regulation that get us the outcomes we need to protect public health and the environment. We cannot protect the environment by over-regulating point-sources of pollution like wastewater treatment facilities and not addressing the public health and environmental problems caused by non-point sources.


The Federal government has significantly reduced its funding in clean water infrastructure to a fraction of what it was in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving the burden of investment to local utilities and customers.

We are still working toward the Clean Water Act’s goal to make all of America’s rivers “fishable and swimmable,” but we’re getting there. Dams are being removed. Green infrastructure and stormwater management practices are seen all along rivers and throughout watersheds. Huge capital-investment programs to reduce combined sewer overflows are underway in Cleveland and Akron.

Utilities across the country are facing affordability challenges as the costs for clean water continue to increase. The Federal government must invest in our local infrastructure. Although hidden, underground and oftentimes forgotten when it’s working properly, it’s necessary.


I have always been passionate about water and the environment, but I am particularly passionate about making public systems work for the public and delivering high-quality service in whatever area that may be.

Working for a utility that provides wastewater treatment and stormwater management services to 62 communities in the Lake Erie Watershed, I realize that I’m part of an important public service, and our work and our people are so much more. Our 750 employees work around the clock to protect public health, water quality and the environment for more than one million people here in Northeast Ohio.

With $170 million annual operating budget and $270 million in annual construction, we deal with engineering, environmental science, hydrology, industrial technology, finance, public policy, legal issues and deeply personal issues as folks are impacted by flooding, erosion, and water-quality concerns.

Utilities across the country have experts dedicated to this work, and it’s critical that we be in our communities talking with folks about our work, hearing their concerns and engaging with timely, truthful and two-way communications that lead to real and sustained improvements in public health and water quality.

Progress is not measured without points of reference. The fire was all-in-one: an ending, a pivot and a beginning. We see a burning river as both a “Never forget” and a “Never again” moment.

Regulation. Funding. Expertise. Those three things came together under the Clean Water Act and over the last 50 years we’ve seen the results of all that hard work. We will continue to do so for decades to come.

This article originally appeared in the November issue of Trenchless Technology, sister publication to WF&M.

Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells is CEO of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) in Cleveland, Ohio. She has been with the district since 2008, and previously served as deputy director of watershed programs. She has led development and implementation of the district’s Regional Stormwater Management Program and also played a critical role in negotiations with the federal government for Project Clean Lake, NEORSD’s program to significantly reduce the amount of raw sewage discharging into the environment.

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