David Zwick ’73: Harvard Law’s clean water hero

There is an unfortunately widespread belief among Harvard Law students that young lawyers must wait before they can begin using their newly-acquired lawyering skills to confront the great public problems of our time. “I agree there are problems,” many think. “But who am I to attempt to solve them— and, let alone, solve them now?” 

The life and work of David R. Zwick, who passed away this month, belies this belief.

Zwick, a member of the Harvard Law School class of 1973, did not even wait for graduation! In November 1972, The Record ran a full page story on the then-3L, titled: “Phantom 3L Attacks Pollution, Congress.” The lead reads:

“Author, pollution control advocate and 3L David R. Zwick has taken his time in getting his law degree. Since 1967 when he began his studies at HLS the young pro bono lawyer-to-be has authored two books, directed a national task force investigating water pollution under the auspices of Ralph Nader’s Center for Responsive Law, and completed most of the work toward a degree in public policy in the Kennedy School. The law degree seems anticlimactic.”

It then spotlights Zwick’s first book, an investigation into Congress:

Zwick has been in the national spotlight as co-author of Who Runs Congress?, a paperback book which serves as the preface to the recently released profiles of 484 U.S. Congressmen prepared by Ralph Nader’s Congress Project…

“What we were trying to do was to cut through the volumes of information about Congress and summarize the key points in a readable fashion,” said the youthful author… “the book was intended to be an overview and a consciousness raiser.”

The profile then goes on to spotlight Zwick’s main concern: water pollution.

A second book co-authored by the many-faceted journalist was Water Wasteland, the product of a 21-month study by a Nader-sponsored task force headed by Zwick. The book was recently published in paperback by Bantam Books and carries a quotation from Newsweek: “The first systematic attempt to wrap up all the available information about water pollution…

…Many of his ideas were incorporated into the recently passed National Water Pollution Act that survived a presidential veto. Zwick is very hopeful about the legislation. “It is particularly important now since the present administration has been reluctant to take affirmative action without mandatory directives which are enforceable, he said. “The new bill establishes a minimum level of performance for industry and local governments; and it makes such performance subject to citizen suits.”

That “National Water Pollution Act” referenced in the profile? It was the Clean Water Act of 1972, the landmark legislation that serves as the backbone for the conservation of clean rivers, lakes and estuaries in America. As a 2L, Zwick was deeply involved in drafting it. As Nader told The New York Times, “Dave had to figure all this out… it was a big, multi-hundred-page bill” that Zwick had to keep free of industry-friendly loopholes. He was successful — thanks to Zwick and his fellow Clean Water Act proponents, America’s waterways and water supplies are cleaner and Americans have more places to swim and fish.

But Zwick was not happy resting on his laurels. Before graduating, he founded Clean Water Action to preserve and expand his efforts. Shortly after graduating, he helped secure the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, which set standards for drinking water quality and bolstered drinking water safety. For the next four decades, he kept up the fight, growing Clean Water Action into a force with 250 employees and offices in a dozen states. In doing so, he popularized new models of grass-roots lobbying to ensure the public interest was heard in Washington and in state governments across the country. Indeed, he took seriously what he had written in his 1972 book: “an awakened local citizenry will always be needed to support the tough stands officials will have to take to get the water clean.”

So the next time you drink clean water, swim in a clean lake, or sit on the banks of a clean river, thank our alumnus David Zwick— and honor his memory by remembering that there is no need to wait to confront the great public problems of our time.

Pete Davis is a civic reformer from Falls Church, Virginia and a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018. Email Pete at Pete@CivicIdeas.org. Tweet at Pete at @PeteDDavis.

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