James Pinsky: Like clean water? Think chess, not checkers

James Pinsky


If you’re a fan of clean water, or checkers for that matter, then 1948 was your year.

You see, in 1948, two amazing things happened. Piet Roozenburg became the first world champion checkers player, and the federal government passed the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. I’ll let you argue amongst yourselves as to which one was more significant.

As for me, as the son of a first-generation American immigrant from Russia, chess, a game of complex conditional strategies, not checkers, has always been my game. Water, on the other hand, I just can’t seem to live without it. I’m sure you understand.

The federal government certainly did, even as far back as 1948. It took a few years, but by 1972, the federal government became much more serious about cleaning up our nation’s water supply and passed a series of amendments which essentially became known as the Clean Water Act, or 33 U.S.C. §1251 et seq. (1972) for those who prefer legal terms.

A quick visit to the always helpful website of the federally funded Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov, allows us to learn just what those critical amendments were:

• Established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States.

• Gave EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry.

• Maintained existing requirements to set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters.

• Made it unlawful for any person to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained under its provisions.

• Funded the construction of sewage treatment plants under the construction grants program.

• Recognized the need for planning to address the critical problems posed by nonpoint source pollution.

Well thought out, these amendments served to not only help clean up our water supplies in 1972 but, like a savvy chess player who thinks 10 or even 20 moves ahead of his opponent, made it possible to set up a series of crucial environmental moves decades later.

Don’t think so? During the 1972 amendment process, the late Senator Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine), who many in the conservation realm regard as a pioneer of modern American environmental law, said prophetically, “There is another humble idea that should be added to our approach: We live today in what an engineer might call a closed system. Some of our resources, once used, cannot be replaced. Others of our resources are renewable, but finite. No one is likely to invent more clean water, more clean air, more arable land.”

Indeed. The 1972 passage of the amendments to the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was a major victory for many conservationists who aren’t around today to taste the benefits of their advocacy. In December 1972, Charles C. Johnson Jr., U.S. assistant surgeon general at the time, helped validate a call to action when he said, “Our water resources, more perhaps than any other, illustrate the interaction of all parts of the environment and particularly, the recycling process that characterizes every resource of the ecosystem … Everything that man himself injects into the biosphere – chemical, biological or physical – can ultimately find its way into the Earth’s water. And these contaminants must be removed, by nature or by man, before that water is again potable.”

Since 1972, the Clean Water Act has been tweaked quite a bit. Historical information on the EPA’s website informs us that revisions were made to the Clean Water Act in 1981 and again in 1987 when the construction grants program was replaced by the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund, which served as a catalyst to the EPA forming state partnerships toward water quality management.

That’s strategy folks. Since 1948, we’ve made moves and counter-moves to enhance, evolve and improve our country’s ability to fight for and have clean water through the Water Pollution Control Act, our opening move. More changes took place in 1990, and even today capable environmental advocates are evolving local, state and federal laws to help not just today’s clean water advocates have success, but like any good chess player, always have the next few generation’s moves in mind. Our successes today are no accident. Again, like chess – not checkers, as lawmakers were thinking not days, weeks or even months ahead but generationally as to what their actions and laws will mean.

The Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 and the 1972 amended version known as the Clean Water Act proved that our grandparents and our parents not only understood that we had water issues, but that we would need to continue to fight for better water quality long after they’re gone. Thanks to the successful strategies of generations of conservationists before us, we are having unprecedented success in restoring our country’s clean water supplies.

Now, the question is, when it comes to our natural resource future, are we now content to just play checkers, or is chess still the better game?

It’s our move.

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.