Monday March 28, 2022

High Country News

Back in 1972, U.S. legislators passed the Clean Water Act with a 10-year goal: Make it safe for people to fish and swim in the nation’s waters. Fifty years later, around half of all lakes and rivers across the country that have been studied fail to meet that standard, according to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a D.C. watchdog and advocacy nonprofit. Instead, they’re classified as “impaired” — meaning that their fish are inedible, their water undrinkable, they’re unsafe for humans to swim in and inhospitable to aquatic life.

The Clean Water Act delivered a major win — it laid the groundwork for essential enforcement on industry — but there were key failures. Most notably, legal loopholes continue to allow fertilizer runoff from farmland and manure runoff from factory farms.  The pollutants, which are washed into watersheds, are considered the top cause of water pollution in the U.S., said Eric Shaeffer, executive director at the Environmental Integrity Project. The law’s inability to regulate this is its single biggest program failure, said Shaeffer. “The Clean Water Act doesn’t have effective regulation for dealing with cropland.” And powerful industrial groups continue to resist and delay implementation of further regulation.

Western states, particularly Oregon and California, figure heavily in the report. Their waterways and lakes are threatened by everything from pollution to warming temperatures. While rivers and lakes have significantly improved in the 50 years since the legislation passed, the fight to make sure all waters are safe continues. “We can’t take it for granted,” Shaeffer said. “There is an awful lot of work that has gone into healing and protection.” He added that the legislation only exists because its supporters were willing to rattle the political status quo. “We are going to need to do that again.” 

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