1972-2022: Florida and the Clean Water Act at 50

The year 1972 was a turning point for water in the United States. People began to grasp that sewage-filled bays, massive fish kills and flaming rivers were not inevitable costs of progress—but avoidable consequences of weak or non-existent pollution controls. The year saw some of the most significant environmental laws in American history, including Clean Water Act at the federal level and the state Water Resources Act here in Florida. The results, which took decades, were dramatic. Floridians could kayak in Escambia Bay, which once set records for fish kills. They could swim in Biscayne Bay, previously dubbed “the rose bowl” for the swirl of pink sewage tourists could see from the hotels. Vanished seagrasses returned, along with the animals that rely on them.

Funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative, student journalists from the University of Florida spent the first half of 2022 investigating statewide water quality to mark this anniversary. They found that Florida can take pride on decades of progress. But in recent years, the state’s failure to limit agricultural and other pollution unregulated by the Clean Water Act; its breakneck growth; and the warming, stormier climate have brought the state to another watershed moment: What President Richard Nixon once called a “now or never” point for public understanding and action.

They found hindrances such as poor or uneven water-quality monitoring that make it difficult for scientists and the public to pinpoint causes of pollution—and for lawmakers to regulate it. They also found bright spots where science and nature-based solutions are making headway to clean up water and bring back aquatic life. Public and political will can make a difference, scientists and policymakers say. “This is the world that we give to the next generation, and we want it to be a healthy world,” Florida International University biologist John Kominoski told environmental journalist and graduating senior Marlowe Starling. “So let’s do it.”