One of the country’s most effective environmental laws– the Clean Water Act–turns 40 today.

The act has been setting water quality standards and regulating pollution for the nation’s streams, lakes and wetlands since being signed by a bipartisan Congress in 1972.

“Before 1972, this nation approached water quality as ‘the dilution is the solution to pollution,” said Hank Graddy of Kentucky Watershed Watch, in a breakout session at the Healthy Farms, Local Foods Conference last weekend.

The Clean Water Act was passed in response to the dumping of pollution in national waterways, and called for “zero discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, and fishable and swimmable waters by 1983.”

The goal of the act was to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our nation’s waters.”

Not all of those goals have been realized–there is still pollution discharged into navigable waters–but the Act did prompt a nationwide clean-up.

The Clean Water Act anniversary was the inspiration for the conference theme, “No Water, No Food.”

EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water Nancy Stoner was in Louisville to speak at conference. On Sunday she joined Kentucky the Waterways Alliance and Watershed Watch of Kentucky on a canoe trip along the Louisville waterfront and celebrated the anniversary of the act with Mayor Fischer who declared it an official day of celebration.

In her talk on Saturday she discussed current threats to national water sources and stressed the need for modernization.

“We need new tools, we need new approaches, new innovative approaches. We need a 21st century infrastructure. We need 21st century monitoring. We need 21st century treatment approaches. We need 21st century pollution prevention approaches,” she said.

During a breakout session, conference attendees asked Stoner about the agency’s actions to protect water from mountaintop mining pollution, and about how the EPA plans on monitoring pollution by big industries. The questions came in light of the news earlier this month that a coal company was responsible for thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act in eastern Kentucky. 

Stoner talked about the modern tools—like two soon-to-be-released smartphone apps the EPA is using to monitor water pollution. But Kentucky author and farmer Wendell Berry was skeptical. “My guess is that the muskrats know more about the water quality of the Kentucky River than the EPA does,” he said.