Clean water still a distant goal

October 20, 1997|By James R. May

WE USED TO treat our nation's waterways with what can be best described as disdain. We viewed rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, estuaries and oceans alike as the nation's waste receptacles.

Only 25 years ago, one of the world's great freshwater lakes, Lake Erie, was pronounced dead. Ohio's Cuyahoga River near Cleveland spontaneously burst into flames.

Chesapeake cesspool

Grand waters in the nation's history, like Boston Harbor, the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson, Delaware and Potomac rivers, were cesspools. Vast numbers of lakes and rivers throughout the country weren't safe -- for fish or people.

Twenty-five years ago this month, Congress declared the moral equivalent of war on pollution, enacting with overwhelming bipartisan support what was, at the time, the most ambitious environmental law the country had ever seen.

Over President Nixon's veto, the Clean Water Act appropriated billions of dollars to upgrade the nation's sewage treatment plants.

It declared that all of the nation's waters should be safe for fishing and swimming by 1983.

By 1985, all discharges of pollution were to cease.

There is no question that some waters are better off than they were in 1972. We have dramatically reduced the amounts of pollution spilling from industrial facilities and municipal sewage treatment plants.

Although we have made strides, great challenges persist. Here is an assessment of the job we have done in implementing five specific areas of the act:

Surveying water quality. We have done an abysmal job determining which waters are safe and which are not. For example, 83 percent of the nation's 3.5 million miles of rivers and streams, and almost 60 percent of the nation's 40 million acres of lakes, ponds and reservoirs have not been tested. The act requires that all waters be assessed to determine whether they comply with water quality standards.

Restoring polluted waters. The law required that all polluted waters be made safe by 1983. We have not come close. Nearly 97 percent of Great Lakes shoreline waters visited by 40 million people per year do not meet applicable water quality standards.

Of those rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and estuaries tested, almost one-half do not meet water standards. The act requires that degraded waters be restored by first determining how much pollution a water can absorb before it becomes unsafe. Thousands of degraded waters still await this type of assessment.

Curtailing polluted runoff. Polluted runoff is the single largest source of water pollution nationwide. It results from rain or melting snow carrying pollutants, including pesticides, manure,lawn fertilizer, sediment and metals from the land to water.

Agricultural runoff is the most significant source of this nonpoint-source pollution; it is highly suspected to be the source of phosphorus and nitrogen pollution which has led to an outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida organisms in the mid-Atlantic TTC region that have killed millions of fish and harmed people.

Wetlands protection. Wetlands clean and recharge drinking water, protect property from floods, and sustain fish and wildlife. We have lost more than half of the nation's wetlands in the lower 48 states.

Although the rate of wetlands loss has slowed, we still convert to development, farming and pavement an additional 100,000 acres of our most valuable wetlands every year. This translates into higher taxes to build facilities to treat water and higher insurance costs to pay for flood damage to property and crops.

Reducing toxic discharges. The rate of industrial discharge of toxic chemicals has been significantly reduced, but more must be done. Between 1990 and 1995, industry released more than 1.5 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into our waters.

This does not come without consequence. Currently, 10 percent of the Great Lakes and their connecting waters are under fish advisories. Four powerful toxins are responsible for more than 90 percent of advisories -- mercury, PCBs, dioxins and DDT. Yet the requirements we set for industrial discharges of toxins has remained unchanged for over a decade.


As engineers, scientists, elected officials and citizens, we must be more vigilant in living up to goals of the Clean Water Act. We must muster the political resolve to address the remaining sources of pollution that continue to foul our nation's waters and adversely impact our collective economic and physical health.

James R. May is director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Widener University School of Law, Wilmington, Delaware.

Pub Date: 10/20/97

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