This month marks the EPA’s 50th anniversary. That anniversary happens to intersect with a new Congress that is about to be sworn in, a new presidential administration, a public health crisis, recession, and rapidly increasingly climate challenges. In short, it is a moment to reflect on the accomplishments of the EPA over the past half century and look forward to what we want the next 50 years to be.
Years before EPA’s inception, President Nixon understood the popularity of environmental issues during the 1968 election that he won over Hubert Humphrey and his running mate Senator Edmund Muskie. Muskie was one of the top environmental leaders in Congress at the time and was seen as Nixon’s most likely challenger for the 1972 election. After winning in 1968, President Nixon and several of his key staff took up environmental causes, even using his Presidential Transition to set up a task force on natural resources. The report warned of dire consequences of unchecked pollution and urged Nixon to place a high priority on environmental management.
As powerful, pro-environmental senators in Congress like Muskie and Sen. Jackson started passing proposals like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Nixon Administration didn’t want to cede environment issues to Democrats forever. After signing NEPA in January of 1970, and seeing the popularity of the first Earth Day that April, he proposed the idea of an EPA (and NOAA) to Congress in July. The idea of the EPA also accomplished another objective the president cared deeply about: shrinking the federal government. Working through a reorganization plan rather than legislation, he consolidated functions scattered among some 44 government offices. Pleased by the idea of unified anti-pollution leadership, House and Senate subcommittees agreed to the new regulatory agency.
EPA opened its doors officially on Dec 2, 1970 and began their role mostly as a technical assistance agency helping states and other stakeholders by setting goals and standards. But with the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act all within its first six years, the EPA’s role quickly grew into an agency with serious regulatory authority. Finding its footing as an agency, staffing up, and developing all of these regulatory structures from the ground up was a monumental achievement for the new agency. Fifty years later, America can appreciate EPA’s amazing legacy of achievements and progress on the environment — a legacy that Democrats and Republicans both contributed to.
As we look ahead to the next 50 years of the EPA and of environmental policy, there are enormous challenges to consider. The threat of a changing climate is forcing us to drastically rethink how we approach environmental policy. This is especially true for water. Most people will experience climate stress through water stress, including rising sea levels, and increased frequency and intensity of storms, hurricanes, floods, fires, and droughts. Climate change means that we need to change how we manage water systems and our approach to environmental policy.
Many of the cornerstone environmental laws were developed sequentially, each layering its regulatory structure over the existing landscape and creating significant policy siloes. Even in water we can see this manifest in the separate regulatory structures around the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. By re-examining and integrating our environmental laws and their regulatory structures, we can find a better path forward without surrendering the hard-fought victories that have made so much progress for us.
Currently, more than 20 federal agencies have some piece of federal water management and have independently developed protocols and practices. Water needs to be managed more holistically, across all agencies. Federal staff should be empowered to develop and execute a cross-agency water management strategy that establishes the nation’s water infrastructure as a priority and embraces One Water principles to ensure a sustainable water future for all.
Fifty years from now, we will be judged on the action we took today. We need action to slow down the rapidly increasing pace of climate change, to adapt to a changing climate, and make our communities more secure. We will be judged on if we secure a better future for all or if we leave some people behind. There are opportunities for the new congress and administration to act, to bring One Water stakeholders to the table, and help create the change we need to see in the world right now so we’re even better positioned to take on the next 50 years.