Clean Water: The Next Act

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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Reforming the Clean Water Act – without Congress

If you cruise around the internet doing research on the Clean Water Act – something I’ve been doing as part of the InvestigateWest-EarthFix-EcoTrope collaboration on the 40th anniversary of that landmark environmental legislation – it would be easy to think President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act into law. References to this are all over the place. Just one problem: It ain’t so. (And this bears on our current situation, too. More on that in a minute.)

No, in fact, Nixon vetoed the legislation, saying that while he approved of its goal of cleaning up the nation’s badly polluted rivers, lakes and bays, the $24 billion pricetag was “staggering, budget-wrecking.” He continued:

“I have nailed my colors to the mast on this issue. The political winds can blow where they may. I am prepared for the possibility that my action on this bill may be overridden.”

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Is the Clean Water Act really keeping Northwest waterways clean? We’d like to hear from you.

It’s remarkable to go back and take a look at what Congress had in mind when it passed the Clean Water Act, the subject of the just-launched collaboration between InvestigateWest, EarthFix and Ecotrope on the occasion of the 40th birthday of the bedrock environmental statute. We’ll just quote:

“It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985…

“It is the national goal that the discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts be prohibited…

“It is the national policy that programs for the control of non-point sources of pollution be developed and implemented in an expeditious manner..."

When Congress passed the Clean Water Act, it turns out, lawmakers really wanted to end water pollution over the course of the next 13 years. It sounds particularly ambitious from the perspective of 40 years later, given that we know that what really got set up was a system to permit pollution. How could that happen? Well, theoretically all polluters would be issued permits – a set of rules under which to operate – that would progressively reduce the amount of gunk going into the waterways they dumped waste into. 

It didn’t always work out that way, though. But there’s no arguing that the Clean Water Act in some ways did a great job of reducing water pollution. Nationally, the classic before-and-after story is Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, which had so many flammable wastes in it in the late 1960s that it famously caught on fire (more than once, actually. And it was far from the only industrial river to do so.) Today it’s a prized urban amenity, with restaurants along its banks and kayakers breezing along on their way to Lake Erie.

Similar comeback stories can be told in our region about Oregon’s Willamette, Idaho’s Boise and the Spokane and Duwamish rivers of Washington, among others. Once they were essentially open-air industrial sewers. For example, a tributary of the Boise where a meat-packing plant was located once ran red with bloody wastes and “health regulators also noted a great deal of rat activity along the banks,” as Aaron Kunz reported last year for EarthFix, based on a government report from the time.

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