Clean Water

InvestigateWest wins 'Special Recognition' from Knight-Risser Prize committee

Huzzah!

Our 2012 collaboration with EarthFix and Oregon Public Broadcasting, "Clean Water: The Next Act" earned a special recognition citation from the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism committee. The top prize went to the Sacramento Bee for its outstanding reporting on the killing of millions of predators and other animals by a little-known agency inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

From the Knight-Risser website:

The Knight-Risser prize places a premium on stories that expose undiscovered or covered-up problems, explain complex solutions in ways that can be put to use, and help readers understand the broader significance of the issues, beyond the immediate details of the stories at hand.

In announcing the prize, the Knight-Risser judges commended "Clean Water: The Next Act" for its "innovative uses of text, video and audio to give people wide access to information about the state of U.S. rivers, lakes, and bays since passage of the federal Clean Water Act 40 years ago."

Byline: 

How Reporters Can Cover the Clean Water Act

After a summer working on Clean Water: The Next Act -- and the better part of a career reporting on water issues -- our executive director Robert McClure went down to the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Lubbock, Tex., to talk to other reporters about how to find stories in their own communities. Robert serves on the SEJ board of directors.

He put together this tip sheet as a handout (PDF), and we want to publish it here, too. Without further ado...

The Clean Water Act: How to cover it back home

2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act, a bedrock environmental statute that resulted in dramatic increases in the health of America’s waterways. But the law has not accomplished its goals of making America’s waterways uniformly fishable and swimmable.

Some ways you can cover this story in your community or state:

  • A great way to get your feet wet with the Clean Water Act is to simply document the locations and discharges of all the sewage treatment plants, factories and other facilities that dump waste into waterways under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES, pronouced NIP-deez). Usually this can be obtained as a data file from the state agency delegated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Water Act. (Idaho, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Mexico do not have this delegation; in those states the EPA enforces the law and will have the data.) Who’s dumping the most? What’s in there? Map ‘em, know ‘em, love ‘em.  You can use this as a reporting tool. Or you could publish to put yourself on the map as a reporter who’s looking into the story.
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If Green Roofs And Rain Gardens Are So Great, Why Aren’t There More?

Grants helped pay for this rain garden to be built in West Seattle. Property owners
who choose to build rain gardens see it as a way to beautify their property, increase property values
and reduce pollution through stormwater runoff.
Katie Campbell/EarthFix

The most pervasive water pollution source in American cities and suburbs is the contaminant-laced rainwater that sloughs off hard surfaces like streets and parking lots after a heavy rain, carrying with it the toxic debris of modern life.

Clean Water: The Next Act

This little-noticed form of pollution kills fish and other aquatic creatures, pollutes drinking-water supplies and scours away streambeds that fish such as salmon need to lay eggs. At least since the 1970s, scientists and engineers have been devising methods to intercept –- or better yet, never generate –- this so-called stormwater.

Yet these methods still are not widely mandated, making stormwater one of the leading reasons the Clean Water Act –- passed into law 40 years ago today -– has failed to meet its goal of making all American waterways fishable and swimmable.

Experts’ modern consensus: Handling stormwater is all about building our cities differently, with more greenery to slurp up the rainwater. Techniques to accomplish this include specially designed swales, green roofs, rain gardens and porous pavement that allows the water to soak into the ground instead of gurgling into a stream.

So why are these techniques – part of a new building approach commonly dubbed low-impact development or green stormwater infrastructure – not more widely required in the Pacific Northwest when a developer plunks down building plans at City Hall today?

The explanation differs according to the state:

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How Stormwater Pollution Became A Clean Water Concern

Stormwater runoff carries an assortment of litter and unseen pollutants into
rivers, lakes, and marine waters, including Puget Sound.
Credit: Katie Campbell/EarthFix

Work to develop solutions to the stormwater problem dates at least to the 1970s. Scientists, government officials and others woke up to the problem in a big way in the 1980s.

Clean Water: The Next Act

Fifteen years after adopting the Clean Water Act in 1972, Congress in 1987 amended the statute with directions for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to go after stormwater. But changing the law didn’t fix the problem.

Congress’ action prompted the EPA and its proxies at the state level to begin requiring cities to obtain government permits to operate the systems of gutters, pipes and so forth that dump the polluted stormwater into streams, rivers, lakes and bays. The local governments were required to:

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How We Got Into Such A Mess With Stormwater

Laura James swims inside a stormwater outfall in Puget Sound that she has come
to call "The Monster" because of how much runoff billows from it when it rains.
Michael Bendixen/OPB

SEATTLE — Gliding through the clear, emerald water of Puget Sound, Diver Laura James stopped when something shiny on the bottom caught her eye. She reached down and picked up a tire-flattened beer can.

And then she noticed more garbage — stir straws, bubble gum wrappers, coffee lids, a plastic packet of ketchup — littered across the sound’s sandy floor.

Clean Water: The Next Act

“I didn’t understand what I was seeing at first,” James says. “We’d swim along and we’d see this decaying swath – black with dead leaves and garbage. And then it would go back to normal.”

James, who has been diving in Puget Sound for more than 20 years, recalls the day she discovered the source. The giant submerged column she saw from a distance was in reality a dark plume of runoff flowing out of a pipe.

“It was just billowing and billowing,” James says. “It just made me feel almost helpless because it’s unstoppable.”

She asked herself, “How do we stop something that’s so much bigger than us?”

How pollution testing may have gone astray

West Point in Seattle is Washington's largest treatment plant. Although it is in compliance with state limits on pollutants in the wastewater it dumps into Puget Sound, other shortcomings have kept it from winning a state award for perfect performance.
Ned Ahrens/King County

SALT LAKE CITY – Sitting by a table in his basement office, a silver-shocked Peter Maier pulls out four colors of Legos to illustrate how all life is built mostly of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon – and how one, nitrogen, can be a big pollution problem when not properly handled at sewage-treatment plants.

Clean Water: The Next Act

He rattles through a brief history of modern sewage treatment, including how what he learned in his native Holland gave him great pause when he moved to America in 1978 and saw how sewage was being treated here. Or, to be more precise, how sewage was tested here.

He quotes the late Edmund Muskie, a chief architect of the Clean Water Act, who said during a Senate speech as the legislation neared passage 40 years ago this month:

“Streams and rivers are no longer to be considered part of the waste treatment process.”

Byline: 

One man’s crusade to stop water pollution by getting sewage testing right

Peter Maier, a Salt Lake City-area engineer

Peter Maier, a Salt Lake City-area engineer, has crusaded for three decades to improve testing of sewage, which he says would show the need for additional pollution cleanup to protect U.S. waterways under the Clean Water Act.

SALT LAKE CITY – If Peter Maier is right, sewage treatment plants across the country are performing a crucial scientific test incorrectly, resulting in widespread pollution of lakes, rivers and streams in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. And they’re doing it with the express approval of the federal government.

Clean Water: The Next Act

At the heart of the engineer’s contention: Our sewage-treatment plants fail to clean up urine.

For three decades Maier has aggressively, even abrasively, pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require different testing of sewage dumped by wastewater treatment plants. Maier says the tests must take better account of how much oxygen the pollution takes out of the waterways where it is dumped, and how much it will encourage the growth of algae that can lead to fish kills.

At stake, Maier says, is whether the country can come closer to meeting critical requirements of the Clean Water Act, passed 40 years ago this month: cleaning up waterways to be fishable and swimmable.

Over those four decades, algae blooms and fish kills have become more common. Scientists increasingly blame this on an overabundance of nutrients in wastewater. One is phosphorus. Another is nitrogen. And nitrogen, Maier says, is being largely ignored because of a botched testing method.

“The way they test now, you get false and misleading information,” Maier said.

Byline: 

Cities And Towns Still Struggle To Control Sewage 40 Years After The Clean Water Act

Paul Gilliland is the mayor of the Eastern Washington town of Harrington. He's pictured collecting a sample of water that will flow into a lagoon. The mayor is getting certified to operator Harrington's wastewater plant.
Courtney Flatt/EarthFix

HARRINGTON, Wash. — When a fire breaks out, Fire Chief Scott McGowan is on the call. He’s on the spot when a sewer line breaks and somebody has to fix it. He is in charge of the drinking water plant that serves the 420 people in the small Eastern Washington town.

Clean Water: The Next Act

And he doubles as the wastewater treatment operator, not as glamorous as being fire chief, but it’s part of his job description.

McGowan’s backup at the wastewater plant? Until the city can hire another worker, that would be Mayor Paul Gilliland. He already handles most of the wastewater plant’s paperwork and is studying to earn an operator certification so he can be a full-service mayor.

Harrington is just one of many communities across the Pacific Northwest that is operating on a tight budget and trying not to violate it’s wastewater pollution permit.

One of the main goals of the 1972 Clean Water Act was to stop “point-source pollution.” That’s the sewage and industrial waste pumped out of pipes and into the nation’s waterways.

To help communities build and upgrade wastewater collection and treatment systems in the years after the Clean Water Act’s passage, the federal government handed out billions of dollars in grants. But most of those federal grants are gone, replaced by loans. At the same time, those federally subsidized municipal wastewater systems have aged.

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