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Climate ChangeThe Clean Water Act at 50: Big Successes, More to Be Done

The Clean Water Act at 50: Big Successes, More to Be Done

When Steve Meserve’s great-grandfather, Bill Lewis, began the Lewis Fishery in 1888, it was one in every of dozens of business outfits scattered up and down the Delaware River that seined for American shad through the spring spawn. On the time, the Delaware’s shad fishery hauled 3 to 4 million of the hard-fighting fish from the river and its tributaries every yr. But, soon enough, Lewis discovered that he had gotten into the business just because the river — together with the species it supported — was entering a period of catastrophic decline.

For 2 centuries, factories and cities on each side of the Delaware had been indiscriminately dumping trash, raw sewage, and industrial chemicals into the waterway. “My grandfather, Fred, would joke that we’d catch a automobile a yr with all of the parts that turned up within the nets,” said Meserve, who took over the family fishery in 1996. “And in my youth, within the 60s, there have been more jokes about getting sick by swimming within the river and drinking the water.”

The Lewis Fishery was positioned in Lambertville, Recent Jersey, not far upriver from what got here to be generally known as the “dead zone,” a 27-mile urban stretch of the Delaware, between Philadelphia and Chester, Pennsylvania, where point source pollution was so acute that the water’s dissolved oxygen (DO) levels were often zero. Robust DO content was crucial to the survival of the shad, in addition to other aquatic species like sturgeon, striped bass, and oysters. The dead zone effectively rendered their ability to maneuver upriver unimaginable — and made any direct human contact with the river dangerous.

The Clean Water Act provided the federal government with the legal framework to control pollution and the funding to scrub it up.

But, just as Meserve was learning the right way to set and haul shad nets as a boy within the Sixties, a historic intervention was within the making. Sparked by the burgeoning environmental movement, the federal government began passing a series of laws that might help bring the Delaware back from the brink, in addition to the estimated two-thirds of U.S. rivers, lakes, and coastal waters that had also develop into so toxic they were unsafe for fishing and swimming. Chief amongst this string of key environmental laws was the landmark Clean Water Act of 1972, which was enacted 50 years ago this month. The act provided the federal government, for the primary time, with the legal framework to control pollution and the funding to assist states construct wastewater infrastructure that might result in the rapid improvement of water quality within the Delaware and within the scores of other water bodies that had develop into the waste receptacles of the Industrial Revolution.

“On the time, as a rustic, we were beyond just trying to try to put food in our mouths and roofs over our heads, and searching for higher things in life, which environmental quality is one in every of them,” said G. Tracy Mehan, a former associate deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “All of it combined with lively political advocacy that yielded the raft of environmental laws which can be still just about guiding our regulatory policies today.”

The Delaware River runs 330 miles. From two separate headwaters in Recent York, it follows the worn Devonian contours of the Catskill Mountains, gathering volume and speed before combining to shape a course that forms the quivering fringe of Pennsylvania’s northeast border. When William Penn first sailed up the river, in 1682, its fresh water ran clear as gin all of the approach to the briny Delaware Bay. For eons prior, and thru hundreds of years of Native American settlement, the watershed had functioned without impairment, naturally constructing and nourishing the wealthy biodiversity that Penn and future European settlers would want to survive.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. The Delaware River watershed.
Shannon1 via Wikipedia

In truth, it was the vitality of the watershed that struck Penn most in his seek for the situation of a “great Towne” in “ye most convenient place upon the River for health and Navigation.” He wrote with awe concerning the river’s extraordinary ecology: oysters six inches long and bigger, their reefs blanketing the riverbed; Atlantic sturgeon, some as big as 14 feet and as heavy as 800 kilos, breaching in every single place in explosive, playful leaps. Shad swimming in schools as thick as wool.

Little greater than 50 years after Penn’s arrival, Philadelphia’s banks were studded with tanneries and slaughterhouses whose byproducts left the Delaware opaque and foul. In 1739, 33-year-old Benjamin Franklin and his neighbors petitioned Pennsylvania’s general assembly to remove the polluters from the riverbank. Within the sweltering summer of 1776, as delegates from the colonies gathered to draft the Declaration of Independence, lots of the city’s streets were piled with rotting garbage and manure that ended up within the river.

By the late 19th century, Philadelphia’s population was around 1 million; nearby cities, like Camden, Recent Jersey, were also rapidly growing. While drinking water standards had improved by then, the Delaware, together with the country’s other great rivers, had develop into untouchable voids — open, putrid secrets of the American experiment. Shad fisherman Bill Lewis kept meticulous catch logs, a practice that his descendants maintained. “Our records show how bad the decline in fish numbers was,” Steve Meserve said. “We’ve got a few years with single or very low double digits — we’ve two years where we didn’t catch any shad in any respect.”

Within the Nineteen Seventies, Gerald Kauffman was a highschool kid living in Pennsauken, Recent Jersey, a blue-collar community across the Delaware from Philadelphia, where tree-lined streets gave approach to a riverbank lined with petrochemical plants and warehouses. “Growing up on the river, it just had a stench,” Kauffman, who today is the director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center, said. “We’d pull fish out of the river that were coated with oil.”

Sailors on the Philadelphia Navy Yard were unable to sleep of their berths due to rancid fumes belching from the water.

In a paper recounting the history of water quality within the river, Kauffman writes that the domestic effort within the World War II era metastasized the Delaware’s pollution woes. Chemical firms like DuPont were manufacturing all the things from dynamite to novel compounds like plastics polymers, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), and per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) compounds. The byproducts often made their way into combined sewage systems together with raw sewage or were released directly into the river and its tributaries.

In some places around Philadelphia, Kauffman notes, sludge sat 12 feet thick on the river bottom. Sailors on the Philadelphia Navy Yard were unable to sleep of their berths due to rancid fumes belching from the water. The fresh coat of paint on a hospital ship “become the colours of a rainbow because it sailed out into the toxic Delaware River.” The circumstances became so dire that, in 1941, President Roosevelt ordered an investigation of the impacts of the pollution on the military effort. In 1944, James Allen, a regional water official, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that, if something wasn’t done immediately to quell the pollution dumped from Philadelphia and Camden, “after this war is over there’s a danger that they might develop into ‘ghost’ ports.”

Allen was hardly alone in his sense of urgency. Across the U.S., policymakers and peculiar residents alike were waking as much as the dire state of America’s waterways and shorelines. In 1948, Congress attempted to deal with the issue by passing the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. However the bill afforded the federal government too little regulatory power or funding to force states and industry to quell point source discharges from sewage plants and factories, the first explanation for river pollution by an order of magnitude.

The Cuyahoga River on fire in 1952.

The Cuyahoga River on fire in 1952.
The Cleveland Press Collection / Cleveland State University

With the dawn of the Sixties, nevertheless, the disparate attempts to enact water pollution laws began to coalesce with the larger social undercurrents and the fledging environmental movement, which were then starting to flood American society.

In 1969, a Union Oil drilling operation off Santa Barbara, California, caused a blowout that released nearly 100,000 barrels of crude into the Pacific — the biggest oil spill within the U.S. as much as that time. That August, within the inaugural installment of Time’s “Environment” section, the magazine published photos of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in flames. The river, which ran through Cleveland and drained into Lake Erie, had in reality been combusting for many years. “Some river!” the accompanying article read. “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes quite than flows.” Of the Potomac, the piece went, it “reaches the nation’s capital as a pleasing stream, and leaves it stinking from the 240 million gallons of wastes which can be flushed into it day by day.” In Nebraska, “Omaha’s meat packers fill the Missouri River with animal grease balls as big as oranges.” In California, the Los Angeles River, once teeming with steelhead trout, had been paved over by the Army Corps of Engineers within the name of flood control and was now little greater than a sluice for wastewater discharges and stormwater runoff.

One among the individuals who traveled to Santa Barbara to survey the aftermath of the Union Oil blowout was Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, a fervent environmentalist who saw within the Sixties’ anti-war teach-ins an efficient method for raising Americans’ awareness of the growing threats of pollution to their lives and future. That December, Nelson hired 25-year-old Denis Hayes to be his national coordinator for an “Environmental Teach-In.” Under Hayes’ watch, the event was renamed Earth Day. “What was missing [in the early 1960s] was anything that wove all these issues right into a single fabric called ‘environmentalism,’” said Hayes. “Which will have been Earth Day’s principal accomplishment: groups found themselves allied in common cause with others with whom they’d not previously recognized as sharing a standard cause.”

When Nixon attempted to veto the Clean Water Act, Congress overrode his veto by an awesome bipartisan majority.

Together with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the primary photograph of Earth taken through the moon landing, the Santa Barbara oil spill, and Time’s images of the flaming Cuyahoga, the primary Earth Day ignited the environmental movement and provided the sort of urgency that Washington couldn’t ignore. A cascade of environmental laws deluged President Richard Nixon’s desk. In 1970, he signed into law the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. And while he attempted to veto the Clean Water Act two years later, calling its $24.6 billion price tag “extreme and useless overspending,” Congress overrode the veto by an awesome bipartisan majority.

The Clean Water Act immediately established a permitting program that regulated industrial point source pollution discharges into waters considered navigable. The EPA authorized most state, tribal, and territorial governments to perform permitting and enforcement on their very own. Perhaps most vital, by way of achieving rapid water quality improvements, the act provided grants to states and municipalities for the upgrade of existing sewage treatment plants or the development of latest ones.

Moreover, each state and territory was required to determine EPA-approved water quality standards through which waters were codified and controlled under one in every of 4 “designated uses”: protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife; recreation, including “primary contact” activities like swimming, kayaking, and rafting; drinking water supply; or agricultural, industrial, navigational, and other purposes. States and territories were charged with setting and maintaining cleanup schedules and classifications, however the EPA held enforcement authority in the event that they didn’t.

Demonstrators gather for the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 in New York's Union Square.

Demonstrators gather for the primary Earth Day on April 22, 1970 in Recent York’s Union Square.
Environmental Motion Coalition Records / Recent York Public Library

“The Clean Water Act was in a position to go in and say [to states], ‘No, we are able to’t do that anymore,” said Peter Raabe, the Southeast regional director for American Rivers, an advocacy group. “So, we saw this form of turnaround pretty quickly, particularly in urban areas where governments were in a position to access that cash relatively efficiently and effectively.”

In Ohio, the Cuyahoga underwent a dramatic revival. Today, within the sections of river that after burned, some 60 species of fish swim. Much of the river is, for significant parts of the yr, protected for “primary contact” activities. So, too, is the Potomac. In 2020, after many years of cleanup efforts, northern Wisconsin’s Menominee River, whose bed was once layered thick with arsenic, coal tar, paint sludge, and other industrial chemicals, was faraway from an inventory of areas inside the Great Lakes region deemed pollution hot spots. Though still a piece in progress, sections of the Los Angeles River are being restored, in some cases in partnership with the Army Corps. Even tiny bodies of water have been saved — with grant funding from the Clean Water Act, Atlanta’s Chandler Park Brook, which had been rerouted into underground pipes and concrete channeling, was “daylighted” and restored to its natural flow.

“You’ll be able to see it time and time again across watersheds,” Raabe said. “Communities saying, ‘Hey, here’s this asset that we hadn’t originally realized that brings tranquility, happiness, and value to our community. We must always turn and face this.’”

A Recent Jersey tributary of the Delaware that was once a “dead zone” is now host to national rowing regattas.

Andy Kricun saw firsthand how briskly the act began to show things around on the Delaware River. In 1985, he was hired fresh out of faculty by the Camden County Municipal Utility Authority. As a part of a team of engineers, Kricun was tasked with planning a recent piping system that might redirect the county’s waste to a single plant, quite than the 52 that were currently in use. “I had a reasonably good bird’s-eye view of what it looked like, no less than in Camden County, pre-Clean Water Act,” said Kricun, who later became the utility’s executive director. “And it was really bad.”

The City of Camden’s Cooper River, which feeds into the Delaware, would develop into an early proof of concept for Kricun and his colleagues’ efforts. When Kricun took the job, 40 percent of the Cooper’s flow was raw sewage. By 1990, the county had disconnected many of the 51 plants slated for closure. “Inside one yr of those treatment plants being eliminated, the tributary’s bacteria levels went down by 95 to 99 percent,” he said. “Now, this river that was once a dead zone is host to national rowing regattas.”

For as pervasive and toxic because it was, the reality is that time source pollution was and stays today the “low hanging fruit,” as each Kauffman and Raabe called it. “Setting aside its aspirational language, at the top of the day, the enforceable provisions of the Clean Water Act are a degree source program,” said Mehan, the previous EPA official. “In that, it was very successful.” But Mehan, together with everyone interviewed for this text, agreed that the hardest challenges lie ahead — especially for the 27-mile segment around Philadelphia and Camden — the infamous, pre-Clean Water Act dead zone — which stays unsuitable for primary contact recreation and continues to be held to the lower water quality standard designated for industrial and navigational uses.

Steve Meserve (second from right) is a fourth-generation shad fisherman who operates the Lewis Fishery, the last commercial shad operation on the Delaware.

Steve Meserve (second from right) is a fourth-generation shad fisherman who operates the Lewis Fishery, the last business shad operation on the Delaware.
Andrew S. Lewis

There, combined sewer overflows, that are common during heavy rainfall events and have gotten more frequent because of climate change, proceed to be an issue. “Sewage eeks out of those systems and gets into the river, even during dry weather,” he said. “However it mustn’t, and there must be federal compliance by the cities, and enforcement, if needed, by the EPA.”

While Kricun acknowledges that it will be prohibitively expensive to upgrade wastewater utilities to ensure that the urban segment to be swimmable 12 months a yr, he says there are cheaper, outside-the-box measures that might allow it to be protected incessantly enough for it to be redesignated for primary contact, including swimming. These measures are attainable through existing Clean Water Act funding opportunities, he said, and a number of other are already in motion.

In Camden, netting was installed over 30 outflows to capture solids; after wet weather events, crews clean out the nets. The county also daylighted a once-filled-in stream, resulting in the diversion of some 50 million gallons of runoff that might have ended up within the Delaware. Across the river, in an effort to satisfy Clean Water Act standards, Philadelphia created the Green City, Clean Waters program, which utilizes green infrastructure like rain gardens and pervious surfaces to capture stormwater for use for irrigating plants and trees. It’s a modest but promising effort: every year, the brand new infrastructure prevents about three billion gallons of polluted water from entering Philadelphia’s combined sewer system.

The 197 miles of the Delaware north of Trenton is one in every of the longest stretches of river within the U.S. designated for “primary contact.”

For Marcus Sibley, who chairs Recent Jersey NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Committee and who lives not removed from the banks of the Delaware, perhaps the best challenge for the Clean Water Act is addressing the layers of inequity which have been exposed because the years of cleanup efforts proceed along America’s once-toxic rivers.

The 197 miles of the Delaware between Trenton, Recent Jersey, north to Hancock, Recent York is one in every of the longest stretches of river within the U.S. designated for primary contact and is popular with canoeists, kayakers, and boaters. The high water quality standard has made it so Steve Meserve’s nets are sometimes stuffed with shad again, that as an alternative of automobile parts, his only bycatch is the occasional tree branch.

Sibley believes the identical standard ought to be applied to the river’s urban stretches. “The Clean Water Act was an incredible step for our country,” he said. “Now, 50 years later, we understand that a few of the things we thought weren’t an issue before are problems now. There are people living in communities which can be adversely impacted by industries’ pondering that their water is okay to be tainted. It’s not okay. Water is a basic right — it ought to be something everyone robotically has access to.”


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