Water Pollution: It has been 50 years since the Clean Water Act was enacted. What has changed?

Eric Schaeffer recalls growing up in suburban Virginia in the 1960s, where the stench of the Potomac River forced the White House to close its windows when international tourists were in town.

For years, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River has been set ablaze because it’s riddled with pollution and oil slicks. The most famous and shocking fire occurred in June 1969.

“This was a reality in the late 1960s, and things have changed since then,” said Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of civil enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which promised fishable and swimmable waterways by 1983.

That promise has not been fulfilled, Schaeffer said, noting that 50 percent of the 1.4 million miles of rivers and streams assessed by states were polluted to the point of being classified as damaged.

“It’s just a fancy way of saying they’re contaminated.”

In conjunction with the Clean Water Act anniversary, Shaffer’s organization released a new report, “50 Years of the Clean Water Act: A Promise to Keep Half a Century”, which analyzes state submissions to the EPA about river and polluted data. Streams, lakes, bays and estuaries.


Trash and animal carcasses in the Jordan River in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Desert News

How do Utah’s rivers rank?

Utah ranks in the top three for the percentage of damaged rivers and streams that affect aquatic life, with 34,910 miles facing challenges.

“This report underscores the need for more work and is an impressive aggregation of data,” said Elise Hinman, manager of integrated reports for the Utah Department of Water Quality.

Hinman noted that it is difficult to compare states due to differences in how the assessments and data are collected.

In Utah, for example, the department samples streams and rivers year-round and those that may be intermittent or seasonal.

These concerted efforts have brought more stream and river miles to Utah, which likely puts the state in the lead, Hinman said.

In 2016, the department also embarked on efforts to prioritize waterway protection for public health, such as focusing on cleaning up E. coli, and focusing on rehabilitating easily accessible areas.

“What we say in this report is not necessarily representative of Utah’s water quality,” Hinman said.

But like other states across the country, Hinman said Utah is battling nutrient pollution, such as excess phosphorus and nitrogen from agricultural runoff or unregulated stormwater pollution.

The federal government’s failure to fight agriculture is responsible for so many waterways damage, especially from factory farms with large animal feedlots, which should be granted discharge permits, Schaeffer said.

“This demonstrates the need for more effective enforcement of the Clean Water Act.”

Schaeffer added that the rules governing industry and wastewater treatment plant emissions have not been updated for more than 30 years.

“We know technology has improved since then. Standards need to be updated to reflect that. If we did, you would see a much lower pollution load from these plants.”

Advocates say Congress needs to overhaul the Clean Water Act to make the EPA more convincing, and the EPA must be willing to be more aggressive in enforcing the standards.

Fred Tutman, keeper of the Patuxent River, Maryland, participated in a recent webinar announcing the report and mocking the cleanup of the river network, including the Chesapeake Bay.

“Whatever progress we’ve made, it’s really not enough to offset the normalization of reduced fisheries, increased dead zones and water that’s flowing into some of our beaches, which can make you sick.”

People have gotten used to the conditions in which they watch water quality reports on the river, like they watch the stock market, or like some kind of “voodoo…it’s kind of like sticking a finger into the wind,” he said.

The regulator continued to make excuses, which he said made no sense to him.

“It’s either clean or it’s not. There’s nothing in between,” he said. “I have to say, the most tactful reason I’ve ever heard is a guy saying to me that we haven’t totally failed in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, we just haven’t succeeded as much as we hoped. That was pretty dull .”


Trash is seen on the banks of the Jordan River at a homeless camp in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Desert News

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