On October 18th, 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed by Congress on an overwhelming bipartisan vote. Now, forty years later, our rivers, lakes and bays are in far better condition and nobody is yearning for the days when the Cuyahoga River repeatedly caught on fire and Lake Erie was pronounced “dead.”

Yet, it’s hard not to feel some nostalgia for an era when such a sweeping piece of legislation, which was viciously opposed by big polluting industries, could pass the House of Representatives on a vote of 366-11. The early 1970s were a time when politicians of both parties could rise above partisan politics and powerful corporate interests to support such lofty goals as restoring and maintaining the “chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

How times have changed. Since it convened in January of 2011, the House of Representatives has voted 38 times to weaken the Clean Water Act and other laws protecting water quality – and what has rightly been called the most anti-environmental Congress in history isn’t even over yet.

Appalachian Voices released a report [pdf] today that shows how dramatically the attitudes of politicians have changed in the Southeast since the region’s Congressional delegation voted almost unanimously in favor of the Clean Water Act back in 1972. On those 38 bills to weaken clean water protections passed in the House, southeastern representatives voted in favor more than 75 percent of the time.

But the report released by Appalachian Voices today isn’t focused on bashing members of Congress for all of those bad votes; it looks at how the Clean Water Act is improving the lives of people across the region in very real and tangible ways. Despite all the hyperventilating by polluting industries and their political allies about “job-killing regulations” and a “war on coal,” it turns out that the Clean Water Act is creating opportunities to start and grow businesses, from oyster farming on the Chesapeake bay in Virginia to whitewater rafting on the Nolichucky River in Tennessee.

What’s most striking about the stories in the report is how Clean Water Act programs are providing tools that are bringing communities together across all political, class and
racial lines based on a common purpose of protecting their most precious natural resource and improving everyone’s quality of life. The positive and unifying impact of the Clean Water Act on communities in the real world is in stark contrast to the partisan rancor and divisive rhetoric around regulations in Washington, DC.

So pour yourself a tall glass of clean drinking water, take a look at the report [pdf], and join us in celebrating 40 years of successes in improving the health of our streams, communities and the quality of life of all Americans.