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.

Today all those rivers’ water quality is far, far better (although decades of unfettered pollution later led to the Willamette and the Duwamish later being declared Superfund sites). There is no question that the Clean Water Act has made a major difference here and across the country.

But polluters also are continuing to dump into those rivers, with government permission. The drive to entirely solve the water pollution problem stalled somewhere along the way. How did that happen? We’ll be exploring that along with a host of other questions.

Consider that nationwide, even four decades of the law’s passage, about one-third of the lakes, rivers, streams and bays are not meeting the goals of the Clean Water Act, which can be oversimplified only slightly as “make waterways fishable and swimmable.” (Those figures are about the waterways where we have data; the EarthFix-InvestigateWest-Ecotrope team is finding out there is also a surprisingly small amount of actual scientific monitoring of water quality, and for many water bodies we really don’t know how clean they are.)

We’re motivated to take this on in part by polling done for EarthFix last year by Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall in which residents of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, asked what they thought was the most pressing environmental problem in the region, were most likely to way water quality protection. Eighty-six percent of Northwesterners described themselves as somewhat or very concerned about water quality protection. (I’m personally interested because I’ve been covering the Clean Water Act for more than half the statute’s life, having started writing about the sugar industry’s pollution of the Florida Everglades in the late 1980s and later spearheading reporting projects that helped spur a redoubled effort to rescue Puget Sound.)

We’re going to look at how the Clean Water Act is being enforced in the Northwest. We’re out to show what could be done better, while also making sure to explore solutions to the remaining pollution problems our region faces. We’re interested in the role of agriculture and forestry in water pollution, in the effects of the many new chemicals that have come onto the market since the law was passed in 1972, in the water-pollution problems the statute doesn’t address (or doesn’t address well) and generally in the state of efforts in the Northwest to, well, if not end water pollution, at least reduce it to levels that don’t violate the law.

As collaborator and Ecotrope host Cassandra Profita pointed out in her inaugural post, we’re eager to hear you. Please get in touch with us about any aspect of the Clean Water Act as we seek to build community around these issues. Here are some of the questions we’re interested in, as posed last week by Cassandra:

  • Are there places in the Northwest where the law has failed to keep rivers clean enough for people to eat the resident fish?
  • Is the law is being enforced? Are illegal polluters in the Northwest being caught and punished as the law requires?
  • Has the law failed to control non-point sources of pollution such as agricultural run-off and stormwater?
  • Should the law be regulating more pollutants – such as the chemicals and hormones that we’re flushing down the toilet?

And, as I said, feel free to point out other topics and angles related to the Clean Water Act that we should be asking about as we seek to critique the historic law and tell Northwesterners how its working here in our region. Email me or any member of the team. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Comments

Your article is spot on in many ways, and you are asking the right questions. While the CWA established goals to continue to reduce water pollution, it also incorporated limits to what the implementing agencies can actually do to accomplish that goal. In addition to the limitations you mentioned regarding the limited data from water quality monitoring: Discharge permits are based on meeting water quality standards at the point of discharge, and there is really no legal mechanism to drive them down even further except in the case of cumulative effects from multiple dischargers that cause standards to be exceeded. Nonpoint sources are not subject to most of the compliance requirements, so the legal recourse available to agencies is very limited and very difficult. With state resources being reduced across the board, most agencies have very little funding to do their own effluent sampling and monitoring as a check on that done by permitees as required by their permits. Likewise, the frequency of compliance inspections is much reduced. Water quality standards are in many cases out of date and do not reflect current information, laboratory techniques, and modern chemicals that were not being discharged when the CWA was adopted. Finally, the growth in our population and concurrent increases in discharges of wastewater and stormwater are in many cases overwhelming the gains made in the early years of implementation. All in all, water quality agencies are hard pushed to keep up, and most local governments, agriculture, forestry and industries push back very hard on any new proposals that would require them to use better and usually more costly treatment technologies and approaches to reduce pollution. I look forward to seeing the results of your investigations.