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40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act: Everyone Lives in a Watershed


Everyone lives in a watershed. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a watershed as “the area of land where all of the water that is

under it or drains off of it goes into the same place.” In other words, it is the entire geographic area that drains into a water body. The EPA recognizes 2,110 watersheds in the continental United States, including the Missouri River Basin. Each major watershed has smaller tributary watersheds. Everyone in Nebraska lives in one of those tributary watersheds.

Clean water is vital for our health, communities, environment, and economy. The nation has made great progress in reducing pollution during the past 40 years, but many challenges remain. Everyone must work together to protect clean water for our families and future generations.

Forty years ago, in the midst of a national concern about untreated sewage, industrial and toxic discharges, destruction of wetlands, and contaminated runoff, the Clean Water Act (CWA), was totally revised to give the Act its current shape. The CWA set a new national goal “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters,” with interim goals that all waters be fishable and swimmable where possible. The Act called for federal guidelines, objectives, and limits to be set under the authority of the EPA, while states, territories, and authorized tribes would largely administer and enforce the CWA programs. Congress revised the Act in 1987 to include a comprehensive program for controlling stormwater discharges.

The Act also gave citizens a strong role to play in protecting and restoring waters. Everyone can help protect their watershed by preventing stormwater, and the pollutants it carries, from running off of their property into their watershed’s streams, rivers, or lakes. Residential stormwater management remains primarily voluntary here in Nebraska. It is much different in some locations. For example, new homes in King County, Washington cannot have downspouts that allow rainwater to splash onto the ground. Water from downspouts must flow into an underground filtration system, similar to a septic system drainfield. A percolation test must be conducted, and the soil must be able to absorb and filter rainwater flowing from the structure in order to get a building permit. A typical percolation test for this purpose costs around $500.00.

As part of EPA's CWA 40th Anniversary celebration, the Agency is hosting a video project asking Americans everywhere to send in a 15-

second video clip explaining the important role that water plays in their lives. EPA will feature selected video clips on its website and their "Water Is Worth It" Facebook page as part of its anniversary celebration. Each video should include the phrase "Water is worth it..." but the rest is up to you! Videos can be submitted through September 14, 2012.

Whether you participate in the video contest or not, you can view the EPA’s Clean Water Act 40th Anniversary website at, join their Facebook page at, and follow them on Twitter @epawater to view video entries and learn more about the Clean Water Act and how you can help restore and maintain the integrity of Nebraska’s waters.

Information included from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Photos from U.S. Geological Survey 

By Sharon Skipton, UNL Extension Water Quality Educator