November 3, 1966
In 1966, if you stood on the banks of the Potomac River you would not have lingered. The river smelled like an open sewer, which it was. Many small towns were simply dumping raw sewage into the river that flowed past the nation’s capital and into the Chesapeake Bay. Anyone who fell into the Potomac was advised to get a tetanus shot. All that began to change on November 3, 1966, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Clean Waters Restoration Act. The previous year’s Water Quality Act required the states to establish and enforce water quality standards for all interstate waters that flowed through their boundaries. To make that possible, the Clean Waters Restoration Act provided federal funds for the construction of sewage treatment plants. This act and others that followed over the next decade had a significant impact in reducing pollution and restoring rivers like the Potomac.
The Johnson administration usually gets the credit for these bills, but the Clean Waters Restoration Act was far more ambitious than what the president had requested. The real impetus for the law came from the Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution, chaired by Maine senator Edmund Muskie. Actually, Senator Muskie had been a reluctant convert to the issue. When he was informed that he would be chairing the Air and Water Pollution Subcommittee, he exploded: “Air? What the hell do I care about air, coming from Maine?” But Muskie buckled down, studied the issues, realized the enormous scope of the problem, and made himself the Senate’s leading authority on air and water pollution. The Democratic Muskie also forged a close working relationship with his subcommittee’s ranking Republican member, Delaware senator J. Caleb Boggs. Their partnership within the subcommittee led to overwhelming support for their bills on the Senate floor, and the Clean Waters Restoration Act passed without dissent.
There was far less consensus within the House Public Works Committee, so the Senate subcommittee took the lead in drafting the clean air and water legislation. Using the Senate as a national platform, Muskie worked to make the public more aware of the health issues posed by pollution. As local environmental movements grew, they put pressure on members of Congress to get behind these legislative initiatives. As public support became more evident, the Johnson administration responded with more wide-ranging proposals, but the bill that Lyndon Johnson signed on November 3, 1966, was one shaped largely by Senator Muskie’s subcommittee. Today, people take the results for granted, and it is likely that the crew teams and other boaters on the Potomac are unaware of how dangerously unhealthy the river was just five decades ago. The cleanup didn’t happen naturally. Rivers across the country were restored because of senators who saw a problem and were determined to fix it.