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Five decades after Clean Water Act, half of US waters too polluted to swim or fish

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Posted at 8:00 PM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 20:05:07-04

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Voted into law a half-century ago, the Clean Water Act of 1972 is still far from achieving its ambitious goals.

The landmark law aimed to make U.S. waters safe for swimming and fishing by 1983. It also promised to eliminate all discharges of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985.

"There were really outrageous incidents of pollution that really brought the issue of water pollution to the public’s attention," said Tom Pelton, director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it caught fire. Nearly always covered in oil slicks, industrial runoff polluted the water for decades.

"And it happened before in the '50s and the '40s. So much oil and debris on the Cuyahoga River that it was literally burning," said Pelton. "Down in Florida, there were massive, record-breaking fish kills. Millions of fish washing up dead."

A watchdog organization, the EIP was founded to help enforce environmental laws. In a newly released report, they identify areas in which the Clean Water Act has fallen short.

“We have a lot of rivers and streams across the U.S. that are much cleaner today than they were a half-century ago. And we should celebrate that success," said Pelton. "But that success is also an example of how we can continue to do more."

According to the report, about half of U.S. waterways studied are too polluted for swimming and recreation, aquatic life, fish consumption, or as drinking water sources.

"Lawmakers did not put any real controls on runoff of manure or chemical fertilizer from farm fields. And today, that is the number one cause of impairments of pollution in our rivers and streams across the U.S.,” said Pelton.

Sewage overflows are another chronic problem.

“This is a problem of infrastructure. Sewage plants, sewage lines, often that are so old and so full of cracks and holes," said Pelton. "When you have these large, intense rainstorms, a lot of sewage systems are overwhelmed.”

The report highlights findings in several states:

  • Florida ranks first in the U.S. for total acres of lakes classified as impaired for swimming and aquatic life, and second for total lake acres listed as impaired for any use.
  • California ranks first in the U.S. for most river and stream miles listed as impaired for drinking water and third for fish consumption.
  • Indiana tops all states with the No. 1 most total miles of rivers and streams classified as impaired for swimming and water contact recreation.

The EIP is also calling for stronger enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to keep pace with advances in treatment technologies. The report says outdated standards can lead to more pollution from oil refineries, chemical plants, and slaughterhouses.

"When there's more advanced wastewater treatment equipment available, EPA is supposed to update the standards to make it more current and therefore more effective," said Pelton.

The report says budget cuts to EPA and state agencies are another barrier to achieving the Clean Water Act's goals. The EIP recommends a boost in funding to hire the expert staff needed to measure water quality, enforce the law, and develop and implement cleanup plans.