Carter’s efforts on the environment occurred at the same time as the environmentalism movement was gaining steam; also in play was Carter’s focus on health and safety, and he was strongly influenced by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). On 22 July 1969, chemical discharges in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire and burned, which in essence was the spark the environmental movement needed, and the first
Earth Day occurred on 22 April 1970 (which was modeled after the “Teach-Ins” of the Vietnam Era). Carter understood that the key to gaining public support to further protect the environment was gaining the support of America’s middle class . . . what Carter didn’t understand right away was that powerful vested interests would be obstacles in the way of his environmental goals.
Carter was about to discover that it had been much easier to stop the damming of the Flint River in Georgia when he was governor that to stop the hundreds of proposed water projects backed by powerful members in Congress. Carter had the initials advantage as his Presidency started in 1977 in that the Democrats had huge majorities in both houses (292 - 143 in the House, and a filibuster-proof 62 - 38 in the Senate). But Carter dumped a ton of major bills on that friendly (and soon to be, in their opinion, overworked) Congress in a short period of time, and very soon Carter’s political capital started to dwindle; politically during the Water Wars, Carter lost in every conceivable way due to his plan of attack.
Carter ignored sage advice from among others Vice-President Walter Mondale, and Carter also refused to focus on a few of the most egregious water projects, choosing instead to stand on principle. At best, Carter viewed that option (called Option B) as nothing more than a shot across to bow which wouldn’t accomplish what he wanted. The bitterness of Carter’s initial approach, as with the energy bill, was to be the lasting memory instead of the eventual accomplishments. The initial perception was that Carter had declared war on the Western states, even though there were just as many pending/proposed water projects east of the Mississippi River that were at risk. Carter wanted to end 35 water projects at once instead of focusing on a few in Option B.
But somebody at the meeting leaked Carter’s goal and the reduced number, and the firestorm started, fed mostly by Carter’s insistence that his strategy remain secret until the official announcement, which in effect denied Congress forewarning and the ability to provide feedback to Carter. Had Carter applied his cost-benefit analysis to the political costs of his approach compared to the relatively minor fiscal savings of shutting down 19 targeted water projects, he would have realized that he would be the biggest loser . . . but he did not and Carter lost politically, big-time. As that firestorm around the 19 water projects intensified, Carter scrambled to develop a strategy, and just like with his energy plan (which was occurring at the same time), the kind of meeting that Carter should have had in the very beginning involving others with vested interests outside of his administration took place far too late.
During March 1977, Carter announced that 337 water projects had been reviewed, and 305 had been approved for future funding. That “Hit List” sent shock waves through Congress; in no way did members of both houses believe that local/regional water projects were in the province of the President. Congressman Jim Wright (D; Tx) and Senator Russell Long (D; La) were apoplectic, and even Senator Edmund Muskie (D; Me), an environmental politician, was all-in protecting a water project in his state. In terms of procedure, members of Congress were right since all the targeted water projects had been properly vetted on multiple fronts.
Adding to the mounting problems was that Carter, at least early in his Presidency, stubbornly refused to act upon, or sometimes even listen to, good sound political advice from his Circle of Trust. Carter’s view of what should be accomplished as President was in moral terms, and those that didn’t share that view were seen as part of the problem, even corrupt. Carter had jumped into the water with alligators and he as bound-and-determined in the early months of his Presidency to show that he could prevail against the Establishment of his own party . . .