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Clean Water Act at 40: Is it failing to meet new pollution challenges?

Congress passed the far-reaching Clean Water Act 40 years ago. The measure scored dramatic environmental successes, including with Lake Erie. But now Erie, and the law, are besieged.

By Richard MertensCorrespondent / October 18, 2012

Taylor Grenz, a freshman at Gannon University, picks up trash on Beach 7 at Presque Isle State Park, during the 10th annual Pennsylvania-Lake Erie International Coastal Cleanup, on Sept. 15.

Jack Hanrahan/Erie Times-News/AP

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Chicago

When Rick Unger was a boy, he and his father would fish from the breakwall where the Cuyahoga River enters Lake Erie

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“I remember the smell,” says Mr. Unger, now 59. “I remember the oil slicks. I remember the fishing not being very good.”

The Cuyahoga was then so polluted that the surface occasionally caught fire. Erie was considered a “dead” lake; in summer floating mats of stinking blue-green algae consumed so much oxygen in the water that large areas of the lake were rendered lifeless.

But in 1972 Congress passed the Clean Water Act, one of the most far-reaching and ambitious environmental laws ever enacted in the United States. The act cut industrial pollution, set new goals for the health of the nation’s waters, and provided billions of dollars to help cities build and upgrade sewage treatment plants.

The effect on the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie was swift and dramatic. Within years, the algae blooms disappeared. The Cuyahoga stopped burning. Fishing improved.

“We had a terrific lake again,” says Unger, now a charter boat captain and president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association. Lake Erie became known as the “Walleye Capital of the World.”

Now, 40 years later, Lake Erie is once more in trouble. In recent summers large blooms of toxic algae have returned. In 2011, the worst year so far, there were days when the algae was so thick that Unger couldn’t take his customers fishing. He once drove his 27-foot Sportcraft boat 14 miles straight north from Cleveland before he gave up and turned back. “I never got out of the algae,” he says.

The recovery and decline of the Lake Erie ecosystem offer a vivid illustration of both the successes and failures of the Clean Water Act in cleaning up and protecting the nation’s waters.

Experts on environmental history and policy say that, since the act, much progress has been made: cleaning up rivers and lakes, protecting estuaries and wetlands, and curbing pollution from industry and municipal sewage – problems that were acute by the 1970s despite earlier efforts to stop pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in 1972 two-thirds of the waters in America were unfit for fishing or swimming. Today, it says, that amount has been cut in half, to one-third.

At the same time, shortcomings in the Clean Water Act and its implementation have left the nation with problems that are being addressed too slowly or hardly at all, experts and environmental advocates say. Here's a synopsis of some of these problems.

• Runoff from urban areas carries pollutants from streets and lawns into lakes and rivers. During storms, this runoff can overwhelm sewer systems, sending untreated sewage into nearby waters. Many cities are working to separate sewers that carry rainwater from those that carry sewage. Some, like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C., are also promoting the use of “green infrastructure” to reduce runoff.

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