BY CYRUS BUFFUM

On Oct. 18, 1972, Congress passed a law that would serve as a transformative turning point in our nation’s history. Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, an important reminder of how far we’ve come in protecting Charleston’s waterways, but also of how far we have to go.

The Clean Water Act established a goal of identifying and reducing water pollution for the purpose of protecting the public’s fundamental and unarguable right to fishable and swimmable water. These protections assumed a simple, yet essential, understanding: clean water is not the privilege of a few but the basic human right of all.

Charleston’s own story is rooted in its waterways. From its rich history to its unmatched beauty, all aspects of life in the Lowcountry seem to revolve around our waters.

Throughout the earlier part of the last century, as our nation’s own industrial development ensued, cities grew, factories were built, lands were stripped and covered, and the eventual by-product of our ever-evolving, ever-consuming, modern world began to impact the quality of our waterways — the very resource that gave our society life in the first place.

There was no time more evident of the destruction of our nation’s waterways than the 1960s. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in June of 1969 after years of abuse. In the 1960s, it was said that parts of the Hudson River would turn whichever color General Motors was painting their vehicles. And in Charleston, sewage gases were known to discolor the paint on houses and even tarnish metals, such as silver.

The 1960s marked a tipping point for the polluted state of Charleston’s waterways. For decades, raw sewage flushed directly into Charleston Harbor and the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Boating, swimming, and fishing were all inhibited by the constant discharge of dangerous pollutants. Wappoo Creek was reported to be unsafe for swimming, and yet this was one of the most popular sites for water skiers. Shellfish beds were closed, fishing harvests declined over the years, and the value of our waterways (both intrinsic and economic) reached an all-time low.

Charleston’s waters were, in essence, privatized. Pollution prevented the safe usage of our harbor, rivers, and creeks, and stripped from us the safe usage of a common resource that is rightfully ours. In 1963, a report published by a citizen-based water pollution investigative committee repeated what most Charlestonians already knew, namely that Charleston Harbor and “its approaches are polluted to a very dangerous degree.” The committee recommended that the government “secure passage of legislation which would make it unlawful on or after July 1, 1970, for any person, firm, corporation, municipality of political subdivision to dump or discharge sewage unless treated into waters into and around Charleston Harbor.” This commitment to protect our waterways was part of a growing trend that would eventually lead to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Overnight, “direct pollution discharges were simply illegal unless enforceable permits regulated their concentrations and amounts.” Municipalities were provided with funding opportunities to sustain the construction of sewage infrastructure and wastewater treatment plants. Water quality standards were established to reflect public usage, and all waters were given the goal of becoming “fishable/swimmable.” This ambitious legislation gave the public a tangible measurement by which we could celebrate and protect our fundamental right to clean water.

Eventually, shellfish grounds were reopened, the Battery no longer reeked of raw sewage, and the public once again enjoyed Charleston’s waterways for fishing and swimming.

Today, however, the stakes are even higher. The value of clean water is greater than ever, and thus, too, is the need to protect and improve the quality of our waterways. There are roughly 65,000 registered boats in the tri-county area, over 50,000 individuals with a fishing license, dozens of water-based events directly exposing participants to the quality of our waters, and countless industries (from tourism to outdoor retail to the seafood industry) that are economically dependent on clean water.

Progress has been made since the passage of the Clean Water Act, but there is still much to be done. There are nearly 50 facilities permitted to discharge a total of over 250 million gallons of treated wastewater into the Charleston Harbor watershed every day. Over 100 water-based monitoring sites throughout Charleston’s waterways are listed as impaired (while nearly half are impaired for fecal pollution). And with every rain, thousands (if not millions) of gallons of polluted stormwater flush directly into our delicate waterways. Many of our creeks and rivers are unfit for fishing and swimming.

We must not forget the commitment made 40 years ago to protect that which is rightfully ours. Much like we value our freedom of speech and our right to bear arms, we too must view our right to clean water as a fundamental freedom worth protecting. Over the next month, Charleston Waterkeeper will celebrate the Clean Water Act by highlighting the multitude of activities — from surfing to fishing — it protects while also publishing data and information associated with the pollution control mechanisms by which we measure the progress it has made.

Cyrus Buffum is executive director of Charleston Waterkeeper (www.charlestonwaterkeeper.org).