David Zwick, a Leading Clean-Water Advocate, Dies at 75
Posted February 22, 2018 11:15 p.m. EST
David Zwick, who was instrumental in writing and securing passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972, and who founded the advocacy group Clean Water Action, died Feb. 5 in Minneapolis. He was 75.
He had had various health problems, including several heart attacks in late 2017, the environmental group Friends of the Earth, on whose board he served, said in announcing his death.
Zwick was a second-year law student at Harvard when Ralph Nader, an alumnus, came to the campus in 1969 recruiting “Nader’s raiders” to work on his citizen-advocacy projects. Zwick expressed interest, but Nader thought he was too immersed in school to be an immediate candidate.
“I said, ‘Let us know when you’re out and you want to work,'” Nader recalled in a telephone interview. “And he said, ‘No, I want to come now.’ So I knew this was a very committed person.”
Given a choice among various causes, Zwick picked water. He soon became an expert in how the nation’s water supply was being polluted and the scope of the problem.
In 1971 he was co-author, with Marcy Benstock, of “Water Wasteland,” a lengthy report by Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law that found that the nation’s water pollution control efforts had failed miserably. Zwick then became involved in drafting the Clean Water Act of 1972, landmark environmental legislation that was subject to all sorts of pressures — from industries whose polluting practices it sought to curb, from local officials worried about federal intrusion and more.
“Dave had to figure all this out,” Nader said. “It was a big, multi-hundred-page bill.” Nader said Zwick had been vital to keeping the bill free of loopholes that would have allowed industry to continue polluting.
“They couldn’t mess that much with the water act,” he said. “It was very tightly drafted.”
The results, years later, were cleaner waterways and water supplies.
“By any measure, this landmark legislation has been hugely successful,” Carol M. Browner, head of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time, said at a 1987 commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the act. “Once-dead rivers, lakes and estuaries are now pulsating with life. People are returning to them — to swim, to fish, to ply the waters in their boats and to relax on their shores.”
Zwick was also instrumental in securing passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. But he was not content merely to push his causes in Congress. Even as he was helping to shape the 1972 legislation, he and several others founded what became Clean Water Action. (It was originally called the Fishermen’s Clean Water Action Project because of the involvement of fishing groups.)
The organization developed a grass-roots lobbying style to counter big-business interests, an approach that includes sending canvassers door to door.
“David taught a generation of activists who taught a generation of activists who will teach the next generation of activists,” Clean Water Action said in a blog post memorializing his career.
David Reynolds Zwick was born on May 1, 1942, in Rochester, New York. He was not the typical Harvard Law student: He had earned a Bachelor of Science degree at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1963, then served for four years in the Coast Guard, 18 months of that in Vietnam, where his assignments included captaining patrol boats in the Mekong Delta.
At Harvard, he earned a master’s degree in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government even as he was earning his law degree and working with Nader.
“Zwick is a phantom on campus,” The Harvard Law Record wrote in 1972. “He is constantly commuting between HLS, his Kennedy School classes and his office in Washington.”
In an interview for that article, Zwick articulated his concern that the “concept of citizenship has never extended beyond voting” — that ordinary citizens viewed the ballot as their only source of input, while industry and other deep-pocketed players pressed their causes year-round through an army of lobbyists.
“In a very real sense we have a democracy for the rich and a republic for the poor,” he said. He made sure Clean Water Action was not just an inside-the-Beltway operation.
“David was very clear that just working the halls of Congress wasn’t enough to win strong environmental laws, and so Clean Water Action opened field offices around the nation in strategically important states,” Robert Wendelgass, the organization’s current president, said by email. “These were long-term investments that paid off not just in terms of strong federal laws, but also in strong state and local laws and safeguards.”
Zwick would take a break from Clean Water Action from time to time to put his ideas and expertise to use in other areas, including helping to form the Illinois Public Action Council, a watchdog group, in 1975 and creating an educational effort, Citizens Campaign, in 1979 to teach grass-roots organizing. He pushed the organizations he worked with to take a broad view of their causes.
“David had a key focus and belief that Friends of the Earth and the environmental movement needed to expand and include ideas of social, racial and economic justice into our mission and campaigns,” Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, said by email. “He helped to lead the board’s work in this area.”
Zwick stepped down as Clean Water Action’s president in 2007 but continued to consult for various organizations.
His marriage to Wendy Weingarten ended in divorce. His survivors include three children, Winnie, Ruth and Jack.
Nader called Zwick “a major figure in our country on water pollution enforcement,” though he was not well known to the general public.
“He just learned, and built, and learned,” Nader said, “and he didn’t care if he got any credit.”