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Let’s reinvigorate the Clean Water Act


Photos courtesy of Interstate Sanitation Commission (left) and Nathaniel Johnston (right)
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At the 50th Anniversary, ‘fishable and swimmable’ remain elusive goals. Here are ways to fill the gaps and fully enforce the Clean Water Act.

Photos: Courtesy of Interstate Sanitation Commission (L.) and Nathaniel Johnston (R.)

On October 18, we mark the milestone of the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a foundation for much of Riverkeeper’s work. The Clean Water Act set goals of reducing and eliminating water pollution so all waters would be safe for swimming and fishing, and it granted some rights to citizens to help enforce it. The act ultimately ended the egregious pollution that prompted rivers to catch fire, and led to remarkable improvements to water quality in the Hudson River.

But health advisories are in place because many of our fish are still unsafe to eat due to PCBs and other contaminants. Our own testing data show we’re far from meeting the goal of making all waters safe for swimming. Diffuse sources of road salt, nutrients and other pollutants are degrading many of our streams and lakes. New contaminants from pharmaceuticals to PFAS are threatening the health of the ecosystems of which we are a part. Climate change is magnifying many of these risks.

Why these failures? The legal structure that the act set up has proved insufficient to deal with a number of persistent and emerging problems like these. It deals only with pollution discharges into surface waters “of the United States,” a definition that is vague enough to have allowed a multi-decade political ping pong match that has prevented full enforcement. And, it only deals effectively with “point source” pollution – discharges from discrete pipes where treatment can be engineered. It’s relatively toothless when it comes to pollution from diffuse “non-point” sources like farm and lawn fertilizers. Finally, regulating new contaminants – and even updating regulations for existing contaminants like the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen, as we learn more about their impacts – is slow and contentious, when it happens at all.

Other weaknesses stem from the implementation of the act. First, there are no hard deadlines to ensure that impaired waters are improved to meet standards. For example, New York State has only in the last decade begun mandating reductions in raw sewage discharge from most communities with combined sewers, and these overflows will never be fully eliminated under current rules. Further, states have become increasingly adept at sidestepping requirements to avoid the expense of bringing certain waterways into compliance with the fishable and swimmable goal. Riverkeeper is battling in federal court in an attempt to get New York City and its federal and state regulators to acknowledge that waters around the city should meet modern safe-swimming standards. You can help in this effort by using our interactive map to show where and how you use the water, an essential step in ensuring that we set and enforce higher water quality standards.

The EPA could improve compliance by imposing meaningful sanctions on states to boost compliance, publicizing comparative data to show which states are and are not doing a good job with enforcement, and requiring states to improve water quality standards. In addition, EPA should require states to improve water quality standards over time, something it has failed to do with nutrient standards, for example. New York State could fill in gaps by improving its efforts to monitor where pollution problems exist, allocating more resources to remedying those problems, and making regular review of existing permits a priority. You can help by urging Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign a bill to extend more protections for small streams.

In short, the CWA has got us a long way down the track over the last 50 years, but now we need to reinvigorate it to reach at least its first goal – fishable and swimmable waters.

Finally, the Clean Water Act was successful in large part because it not only involved new rules, but new money to help comply with those rules. On Election Day, November 8, flip over your ballot and vote Yes for Proposition 1, the Clean Water Clean Air Green Jobs Bond Act – and write to our U.S. Senators today to urge them to pass the NY NJ Watersheds Protection Act. Both would bring essential new funding to the Hudson to improve water quality, restore habitat and boost climate resilience.

Tell Gov. Hochul to block invasive species at the Erie and Champlain canals
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