New efforts needed to meet goals of Clean Water Act

  • Posted: Monday, August 5, 2013 12:14 a.m.
Janet MacFall
Janet MacFall

In the most recent edition of its annual “Testing the Waters” report on beach water quality, the National Resources Defense Council cites an eye-popping piece of data: for local governments and businesses along our nation’s shores, a typical swimming day is worth about $35 in revenue for each visitor.

American vacationers, who make upward of 900 million trips to coastal areas each year, spend about $44 billion in these areas. If you think clean water is only a liberal cause, think again. The NRDC’s report was a timely reminder that economic growth is one of the key benefits we receive when we use regulations to protect the environment, especially our water.


In contrast, my childhood memories of dead fish blanketing the Chesapeake Bay, the Cuyahoga River burning in Cleveland and textile mills creating mountains of river foam are reminders of what can happen when we don’t.

We’re fortunate that the United States has a history of environmental protection. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act, originally passed in 1948, was amended in 1972 to create the Clean Water Act for restoring and maintaining chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters, making them all “fishable and swimmable.”

Goals were based on standards set by each state with federal funds available to upgrade or build wastewater treatment plants. No longer could raw sewage or industrial wastes be freely dumped into streams. Congress later established a comprehensive program that directed states to control pollutants from non-point sources such as developed lands, cities and farms.

The Clean Water Act is considered one of our nation’s greatest environmental success stories. Today in the Mississippi River, nitrogen from wastewater treatment plants has declined, reducing the number of algal blooms. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a smaller dead zone this year in the Chesapeake Bay. Contact with water in the Charles River no longer causes rashes and sport fishing has returned to nearby Boston Harbor.

There have been reductions in the amount of sediment, bacteria and oxygen-consuming materials washing into rivers. Major environmental catastrophes such as the recent BP oil spill are less frequent. The Haw River in my own North Carolina backyard no longer flows the color of the fabrics from upriver textile mills.

About $85 billion in federal funds have been spent nationwide to upgrade or construct new wastewater treatment plants, and human wastes must be removed from water before entering our rivers.

Despite these improvements, not all goals established by the Clean Water Act have been achieved. Half of U.S. streams and rivers, and 67 percent of ponds, lakes and reservoirs, do not meet water quality standards for a healthy waterway. Tens of thousands of lakes, and hundreds of thousands of river miles are under fish consumption advisories due to chemical contaminants.

Dead zones as large as 6,000 square miles occupy the Gulf of Mexico as a lack of oxygen in the water make aquatic life impossible. In the Pacific, humans have created the 1.9 million small pieces of plastic suspended in a square mile of ocean just off the California coast. Several North Carolina coastal areas are closed for the harvest of shellfish because of human health concerns with consumption.

On land, estimated costs top $390 billion for upgrading or building additional treatment plants and infrastructure. There’s no time like the present to break ground. Birth control drugs, antidepressants and household chemicals are now found in rivers that may be used for drinking water.

Much remains to be done, including the development of watershed approaches — using citizen input — to restore polluted waters. Local and state governments must work with the Environmental Protection Agency to determine how much a water body is able to clean up naturally before implementing watershed plans to meet acceptable contaminant levels.

New challenges also include management of toxins such as lead, mercury, PCB’s and pharmaceuticals in rivers, shifting to conservation priorities, providing resources for communities to upgrade water infrastructure, and expanding monitoring of water quality so problems can be identified.

Long-term benefits will be the protection of human health and quality of life through protection of our water treasures. Nor do businesses want to locate to areas where there are concerns about drinking water, beaches and other water attractions.

As political pressures increase on both the federal and state levels to roll back environmental protections through budget cuts and legislative repeals of current protections and rules, it is important to remember that although progress that has been made, we still have far to go. The potential to return to dead rivers, polluted beaches and dead sea life is real – and not a legacy we want to leave.

Janet MacFall is a professor and director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Elon University.

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