Eric Schaeffer recalls growing up in suburban Virginia in the 1960s and the Potomac River had such a stench it forced the windows closed at the White House when international visitors were in town.
Over the years, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio ignited because it was so riddled with pollution and covered in oil slicks. The most famous and alarming fire was in June 1969.
“That was the reality in the late 1960s and things have changed for the better since then,” said Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of civil enforcement for 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 kept, Schaeffer said, pointing out that of the 1.4 million miles of rivers and streams that have been assessed by states, 50% are polluted to the point they are classified as impaired.
“That is just a fancy way of saying they are polluted.”
In conjunction with the anniversary of the Clean Water Act, Schaeffer’s organization released a new report called “The Clean Water Act at 50: Promises Half Kept at the Half Century Mark,” which analyzed states’ data submitted to the EPA regarding pollution in rivers and streams, lakes, bays and estuaries.
How do Utah’s rivers rank?
Utah ranked among the top three states for its percentage of impaired rivers and streams impacting aquatic life, with 34,910 miles facing challenges.
“This report highlights the need for more work to be done and is an impressive aggregation of data,” said Elise Hinman, the Integrated Report manager for the Utah Division of Water Quality.
Hinman pointed out it is difficult to compare states due to the variation in assessments and how the data is collected.
In Utah, for example, the division samples both year-round streams and rivers and those that may be intermittent or seasonal.
Hinman said those concerted efforts roped in more stream and river miles for Utah, which likely put the state in that top bracket.
In 2016, the division also embarked on an effort to prioritize protection of waterways for public health, focusing — as an example — on cleaning up the bacteria E.coli and concentrating its efforts on remediating areas that are easily accessible.
“What we are putting in that report is not necessarily representative of water quality in the state of Utah,” Hinman said.
But like other states across the country, Hinman said Utah struggles with nutrient pollution such as excess phosphorus and nitrogen caused by agricultural runoff or contamination from unregulated stormwater.
Schaeffer said the federal government’s failure to confront agriculture is what has led to so many impaired waterways, particularly impacts from factory farms with big animal feedlots that should have permits for their discharges.
“That points to the need for more effective enforcement of the Clean Water Act.”
Rules regulating industry and discharges from wastewater treatment plants haven’t been updated in more than 30 years, Schaeffer added.
“We know technology has improved since then. The standards need to be updated to reflect that. And if we did, you’d see a lot lower pollution loads from those plants.”
Advocates said Congress needs to overhaul the Clean Water Act to give the EPA more teeth, and the EPA must be willing to enforce those standards much more aggressively.
Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper in Maryland, joined a recent webinar held to announce the report and derided cleanup efforts for the network of rivers comprising Chesapeake Bay.
“Whatever progress we’ve made, it is truly insufficient to counterbalance the normalization of diminishing fisheries, increasing dead zones and water that comes onto some of our beaches that can make you sick.”
He said people are so used to the conditions they watch water quality reports on the river like they watch the stock market or like it is some kind of “voodoo ... It is kind of like sticking your finger in the wind.”
Regulators continue to make excuses, which he said doesn’t make any sense to him.
“It is either clean or it is not. There is no in between,” he said. “I have to say the most glib rationale I’ve ever heard is a fellow said to me that we haven’t totally failed at cleaning up Chesapeake Bay, we have just not succeeded to the extent that we might like. That’s pretty dreary.”