Facing Up to Freshwater Pollution: We Are at a Turning Point as Momentous as the 1970s, When the Clean Water Act Was Enacted

Article excerpt

THE STATE OF FRESHWATER IN THE United States resembles A Tale of Two Cities. It is the best of times in that, in the latter portion of the 20th century, we reversed the general disregard for water bodies. Our nation rallied in the face of flammable rivers, water bodies used as dumps for industrial waste and municipal sewage, and wetland losses of approximately 450,000 acres per year. Waterways are significantly healthier today because a previous generation of leaders had the vision and commitment to insist upon it. But it is the worst of times in that progress today has essentially plateaued far short of the national goal, stated in the very first section of the 1974 Clean Water Act, of having fishable and swimmable waters. The law's goal of eliminating pollution discharges has, moreover, been reduced to a fantasy of a bygone era.

There are numerous, ominous signs of complacency. The U.S. continues to rely upon technologies developed decades ago, or, in the case of wastewater treatment, almost 100 years ago. We have let our sewer systems fall into disrepair, allowing raw and partially treated sewage to flow into waterways because it never reaches the plant for treatment. At our current rate of investment, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has projected that sewage pollution will be as high in 2025 as it was in 1968, before the passage of the Clean Water Act.

Under the guise of responding to a pair of Supreme Court decisions, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers no longer require permits for many discharges that pollute or destroy wetlands or headwater streams. Federal clean-water policy historically has done a poor job of protecting against pollution from storm water and from agriculture. And we have barely begun to come to terms with the droughts and flooding, the harm to cold-water fisheries, and the threats to drinking-water supplies that global warming will bring.

In short, the country finds itself at a turning point as momentous as it faced in the 1970s when the clean-water law was enacted. It would be a mistake to continue on the current path, which threatens to lead to the reversal of much of the progress of the last several decades. The nation must recommit to implement the policies that served us well and turned the country's waters around. It must also employ new techniques that prevent pollution. Just as we face an urgent need to cope with the parallel problems of increasing drinking water scarcity and over-consumption, we must redouble our efforts to control water pollution. What follows is a set of recommendations to do so.

RECOMMITTING TO PROGRESS

One particularly acute problem today is that the agencies responsible for implementing the Clean Water Act have refused to apply the law to all the water bodies that they have the authority to protect. Two recent Supreme Court decisions have raised questions about the degree to which certain kinds of water bodies are included in the law's programs regulating industrial pollution, oil spills, and the destruction of waterways. These decisions did not, however, strike down the existing, broadly protective rules. Rather than safeguard the waters unaffected by the Court's decision, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have made things worse by refusing (or making it harder) to protect certain kinds of water bodies--particularly so-called "isolated" waters and headwater and seasonal tributary streams. This problem is as fundamental as they come. We cannot effectively protect lakes, rivers, and coastal waters if we do not protect the waters that flow into them.

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As the universe of water bodies being protected has shrunk, so too has federal funding for clean-water infrastructure needs. The gap between the amount of federal funding and the estimated wastewater needs has been estimated at approximately $20 billion annually. We should close the funding gap, identify a dedicated source of funding for clean-water infrastructure as we have for highways and other U. …