October 2012 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. First enacted as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, the law was substantially strengthened in 1972 and 1977 to become what is commonly called the Clean Water Act. The objective of this landmark legislation was to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” by eliminating discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters of the U.S.
And while the Clean Water Act found great success in its first quarter century, almost doubling the number of rivers and lakes considered “fishable” and “swimmable”, and dramatically increasing the percent of the population served by sewers, it still faces incredible challenges. The 2004 National Water Quality Inventory: Report to Congress estimated 44% of assessed stream miles, 64% of assessed lake acres and 30% of assessed bay and estuarine square miles were not clean enough to support fishing and swimming. The report identified the leading causes of impairment as: pathogens, mercury, nutrients, and organic enrichment/low dissolved oxygen, and the top sources of impairment as atmospheric deposition, agriculture, hydrologic modifications and unknown or unspecified sources.
Despite these challenges, on July 13, 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2018: Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011. The act proposes to amend the Clean Water Act to “preserve the authority of each State to make determinations relating to the State’s water quality standards, and for other purposes.” The NRDC rightly argues that the bill “reverses the basic premises Clean Water Act – that what one state does affects the waters in other states, and that state policies alone had failed miserably to provide waters that are safe for drinking, swimming and fishing” and that the bill would prevent EPA from requiring states to develop effective clean water protection rules. The bill has not yet been taken up by the Senate.
As a nation, our water quality issues are not trivial. We have a Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico – an area the size of the state of Rhode Island in the bottom waters in which oxygen concentrations are so low that virtually nothing can live, we are contaminating drinking water with fracking fluids, and loading up aquifers with nutrients, antibiotics and microbial pathogens from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). A 2009 New York Times article suggests that “the Clean Water Act has been violated more than 506,000 times since 2004, by more than 23,000 companies and other facilities” and the number of violations had grown over the previous decade. At the same time, powerful industries are successfully lobbying to undermine effective regulation. It seems that this latest attempt to undermine the Clean Water Act is more of the same. As William K. Reilly, EPA Administrator under President George H.W. Bush, said “Unless the E.P.A. is pushing state regulators, a culture of transgression and apathy sets in.”
Have we forgotten the fate of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, which captured national attention and incited outrage when it burst into flames in 1969 (not for the first time, I might add). At the time, the river was said to be one of the most polluted in the U.S. – its surface covered with a brown oily film and trash and debris-filled, thick, black oil slicks — and entirely devoid of fish. The event is considered by many to have largely spurred the environmental movement, the Clean Water Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Is this what we want for our future?