04/30/2012 02:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Turning 40: Avoiding a Midlife Crisis for the Clean Water Act

Landmark legislation like the Clean Water Act doesn't need a red hot convertible to celebrate turning 40, but it does need some new policy wheels to help it avoid a midlife crisis. Today, as this environmental safeguard inches closer to its birthday, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers are proposing a revised guidance to provide greater clarity for the Clean Water Act. The guidance, which is currently under final review by the Office of Management and Budget, will also help restore long-standing protections for waterways across the country. At risk are wetlands and streams that sustain communities, businesses and fish and wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay, Mississippi River Delta, Prairie Pothole region, Missouri River Basin and throughout the country. Protecting these precious waters protects our health, our economy, wildlife and a way of life for hunters, anglers, campers, outdoors enthusiasts and all Americans who enjoy clean water.

Before the Clean Water Act, pollution was so bad that water bodies like the Cuyahoga River in Ohio and the Charles River in Massachusetts caught on fire faster than a batch of birthday candles. The Charles River is even featured in an aptly named song called "Dirty Water," a 1960s hit by the Standells.

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in order to cleanup these nasty, noxious combustible rivers, lakes and streams. Lawmakers also wanted to stem the destruction of wetlands vital for flood control, drinking water and wildlife habitat.

Over the years, muddy Supreme Court rulings and cloudy agency guidance added confusion over the scope of the Clean Water Act. As a result, there are unresolved questions about what waters and wetlands should be protected under the law. This includes small local streams that provide tap water, food, jobs and recreation.

Now is the time to resolve and strengthen safeguards for resources none of us can live without. Finalizing the guidance will help avoid a confusing midlife crisis for the Clean Water Act by affirming longstanding protections and providing greater clarity for developers, land owners, conservationists and state and federal agencies. A final guidance should also be followed up with a rule-making to give the Clean Water Act more vigor and longevity so that it can keep our waters drinkable, swimmable and fire-free for another 40 years and more.