Chesapeake Bay and 50 Years of the Clean Water Act

How we've progressed and what's left to do

When Congress enacted the Clean Water Act over President Nixon's veto in 1972, the Chesapeake Bay was suffering from significant pollution problems. Now, 50 years later, we discuss the impact of this landmark federal law on the Bay's water quality, and what work is still left to do.

Produced and edited by A.J. Metcalf.
Historical pollution photos credit: National Archives/ EPA Documerica Project.
All other photos and videos credit: Chesapeake Bay Foundation staff/ A.J. Metcalf/ Kenny Fletcher/ Chesapeake Bay Program.
Watershed map credit: Kmusser/ Wikimedia Commons.


When Congress enacted the Clean Water Act over President Nixon's veto in 1972, the Chesapeake Bay was suffering from significant pollution problems.  

The law called for polluted waterways to be fishable and swimmable by 1983. It enabled cities and states to reduce direct sources of pollution, such as from power plants, factories, and wastewater treatment plants. After failing to reach the Act's 1983 goals and later milestones, the law led to the creation of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load in 2010.

The TMDL or Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint created enforceable pollution limits. To meet the goals of the Bay Blueprint, the six states and Washington D.C. that comprise the Bay Watershed have worked to restore rivers and the bay by upgrading wastewater treatment plants, helping farmers reduce fertilizer and pesticides runoff, and limiting industrial pollution. The cleanup efforts have helped prevent tens of thousands of pounds of primary Bay pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus from reaching waterways.  

In the water, these pollutants cause harmful algae blooms that discolor the water and reduce oxygen levels that marine animals and plants need to live. Fifty years after the Clean Water Act took effect, time is running out for states in the watershed to meet the Bay pollution limits by 2025. Meanwhile, numerous waterways throughout the region still remain unsafe for fishing and swimming.  

What do the watershed states still need to do?  

In Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, the states responsible for 90 percent of pollution in the watershed, it's the same answer—-reduce significant amounts of pollution from agricultural operations and stop polluted runoff generated in our cities and towns from reaching waterways.  

Already, work is underway to help farmers implement methods of regenerative agriculture which restore soil health, enabling land to hold more water, and in turn reduce polluted runoff. Ways to reduce farm runoff include using cover crops over the winter, planting a diversity of crops, rotating the fields where animals graze, and using vegetated buffers to separate fields.  

In our towns and cities, we need green infrastructure, street trees, green roofs, permeable pavement, rain gardens, bioswales, and other types of natural solutions that help filter water from our urban areas before it reaches waterways. In the past 50 years, we've used the Clean Water Act to lay the foundation for a restored Chesapeake Bay. But continuing population growth, increased development, and pollution from diffuse sources are preventing the cleanup from being successful.  

Throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, people continue to be banned from swimming or fishing in waterways due to pollution. It's time to double down on the ongoing cleanup efforts so we can achieve the goals of the Clean Water Act before another 50 years goes by.

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