Vol. 10, No. 42

October 17-23, 2002

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The Clean Water Act at 30
Is Our Local Water Glass Half-Clean or Half-Dirty?
by April Falcon Doss

What if the Severn River caught fire one day, with unquenchable flames raging in front of the Naval Academy and a black plume of smoke riding the wind to waft in front of the state capitol? Not a chance, you might think. The Severn is a designated state scenic river; no industries line its shores.

But what about more pedestrian waters, like the heavily industrial Cox Creek in northern Anne Arundel County, whose banks are lined with natural gas storage tanks and paint and chemical plants? Or, on the small creek near you, a localized fire caused by a fuel spill at a nearby marina?

It seems unimaginable. But in 1969 it was the raging flames on the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, that shocked America into seeing just how polluted our waters had become. The filth-ridden Cuyahoga ignited in the same year that oil spilled off the coast of Santa Barbara, slicking seals and sea birds, fouling beaches for miles. In the same decade, Lake Erie became the butt of pollution jokes nationwide. And in 1971, Dr. Seuss wrote a children’s fable called The Lorax, which warned of the desolation that pollution would bring, “Unless …”

Even the unthinkable can lead to good. The good that came of the pollution of our waterways was the federal Clean Water Act. The act, passed in 1972 by a nation seeking to restore the health of its most precious resource, celebrates 30 years on October 18. How far have we come in those years?

In 1972, two-thirds of America’s bodies of water were unfit for swimming or fishing. Congress passed the Clean Water Act to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.” It listed three ambitious goals: First, all of the nation’s waters were to be made safe for fishing and swimming by 1983. Second, by 1985 there was to be no more direct discharge of pollutants into navigable waters. And third, no toxic pollutants were to be released into the water in dangerous amounts.

In the first 15 years, our waters came a long way. Sewage treatment plants were built; industrial and municipal polluters were ordered to clean up their acts. Considered a “technology-forcing” statute, the act caused a fundamental shift in how American businesses and cities dealt with pollution and waste. But these early years focused on what is now known as “point-source pollution” — pollution that can be traced to a single pipe or tank or leak that spews toxic goo like The Lorax’s Schloppity-Schlopp that glumped up the pond where the Humming-Fish hummed.

Regulating point-source pollution hasn’t been enough. In 1987, the act was amended to impose stricter regulations on toxic chemicals from industry and to manage pollution from agricultural runoff, sewage overflows during rainstorms and runoff from city streets.

Even with this broader focus, the success of the Clean Water Act has been mixed. In the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory — a biennial survey required by the Clean Water Act — the Environmental Protection Agency reported that 40 percent of streams, 45 percent of lakes and 50 percent of estuaries are still not clean enough to fish and swim in.

Maryland’s numbers parallel the national average. About 54 percent of Maryland’s rivers and streams support aquatic life, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Only 37 percent of the state’s estuaries and bays have water quality that’s been assessed as “good.” Lakes and estuaries are most often impaired because they lack sufficient oxygen, a shortage that is caused by having too many nutrients in the water. The overload comes from agricultural and urban runoff and air pollution.

Nonpoint sources have proven intractable so far, perhaps because they’re more complicated to manage. Or perhaps, having made such strides against point-source pollution, we lack the will to make the tough changes to reduce nonpoint-source pollution more effectively. Most likely, our limited success is a result of both the problem and our response.

In any event, 30 years after the Clean Water Act, we still have a long way to go.

Is our local water glass half-clean or half-dirty?

We’ve come a long way from the days when a river caught fire. And thanks in large part to the Clean Water Act, we’re unlikely to see flames ignite the Severn or even Cox Creek. But until our local Humming-Fish swim in our Bay and rivers once again, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly