Stanford reflects on Earth Day at 50: Newsha Ajami

Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Water in the West program, discusses the profound impact of the Clean Water Act.

Newsha Ajami is director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Water in the West program. She is also an appointee to the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board. Her research focuses on sustainable water resource management, water policy, innovation and financing, and the water-energy-food nexus.

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Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Director of Urban Water Policy, Newsha Ajami reflects on the success the U.S. Clean Water Act.

What is an example of a major environmental success story related to freshwater over the past 50 years?

California’s Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act – passed in 1969 – and the federal Clean Water Act – passed in 1972 – have been effective at protecting waterways and providing guidelines and regulations on management of water pollution.


Why do you consider them of great significance/importance?

These two laws provide regulatory vehicles for states and local governments to protect our nation’s water resources from pollution and contamination by various human activities, and to make sure they can provide livelihood and beneficial use for humans and ecosystems that depend on them.


What led to the change?

A number of events led to this change. One notable one was when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire in 1969 and caused significant damage to two key railroad bridges. Also, many water bodies were seriously polluted leading to a record amount of fish dying and degraded drinking water sources. Growing public awareness of these conditions led to the passage of the Clean Water Act.


What lessons can we learn from this success story?

Over the years, both the Clean Water Act and the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act have evolved and adapted to address our broader understanding of how to best protect water resources. The laws and regulations are great tools to act as catalyzers for change. They create an ecosystem to support innovation and technological advancement by providing financial incentives, economic markets, and investment opportunities. Unfortunately, the political will has been lacking – especially at the federal level – to pass a much-needed major water- and water infrastructure-related law. I hope we can move toward a more proactive policymaking process that enables our long-term water security while promoting social development and economic growth in tandem with environmental health and protection.