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CWA: 40 years of life-sustaining water

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| October 18, 2022 1:00 AM

Water is a huge part of life in North Idaho. Our communities, livelihoods, and that inspiring tranquil nature we so enjoy are centered on three big, beautiful lakes and several rivers.

Imagine swimming in dark, dirty water. Sewage floats there and you can’t see through it. Then imagine drinking it, because that’s what’s available.

That was once reality, not so long ago as you’d think and not just due to industrial waste. Cities once dumped raw sewage into rivers, which flowed downstream to rural homesteads in America. Even today, every time man eats fish which lived in polluted water, he’s consuming a version of what they consumed.

Can’t mention water regs without picturing a river on fire. In 1969 Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so imbedded with pollution that it actually caught fire. Before regulations restricting it, water was ill-used even where alternatives existed. People did it because they could.

Until the Clean Water Act, which became law 40 years ago today. It’s obvious why we need clean water. We drink it; swim, play, and fish in it; and both wildlife and industry rely on it.

It’s ironic, but industrial pollution hurts industry too. Encyclopedia Britannica reports a 1968 survey showed pollution in Chesapeake Bay resulted in millions of lost revenue for fishermen. A 1969 study found bacteria levels in the Hudson River (lined with factories and businesses) were 170 times the legal limit, which created problems for the businesses and homes downstream needing clean water. In 1969 pollution from Florida food processing plants killed 26 million fish in one lake, the largest fish kill on record.

Public outcry over such dangerously polluted waters spurred the Nixon Administration to establish the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Soon after Congress created the landmark Clean Water Act on Oct. 18, 1972, requiring states to set water protection standards. While the number of the American waters meeting clean water goals has since significantly improved, more than half remain polluted.

The Clean Water Act:

• Mandates the protection of any waters with a “significant nexus” to navigable waters, and identifies, licenses, and enforces standards on originators of “point source pollution” such as a factory, farm, or sewage treatment plant.

• Was passed when 60% of waterways in the US were not “fishable or swimmable.” Today about 40% are.

• Requires states to set Water Quality Standards, including designated uses (e.g., recreation, drinking, or aquatic habitat) for each water body in the state and criteria to protect them.

• Requires businesses who want to discharge into a waterway to get a state permit limiting pollution amounts according to its WQS.

• Makes states responsible for identifying and writing clean-up plans for impaired waters within their borders, and notifying the public about water quality decisions, permits, or changes in water quality standards.

These days most manufacturers and businesses are fairly responsible, following CWA and other environmental laws. As a result, point source pollution has been significantly reduced and is well controlled. However, nonpoint source pollution remains a big problem. When rain or snowmelt flows over the landscape it picks up pollutants in soils and streets, which still find their way into rivers.

Overall, we still have a long way to go to achieve reliably clean water across the nation. That’s good for homes as well as businesses, as clean water enhances economic values of individual properties and communities. It also boosts recreational interests, which in North Idaho is a significant economic factor.

Some federal laws are there for good reasons. Happy birthday, CWA.

For more information on the Clean Water Act see epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-water-act.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who appreciates clear water. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.

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