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.
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In part, the Clean Water Act was a victim of its own overarching ambitions. It set standards that turned out to be impossible for the country to meet. The act said that by 1983, all waters should be clean enough for fishing and recreation. By 1985, it said, the discharge of all pollution should be stopped.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Water wet and wild
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“It struck me at the time that it just wasn’t realistic,” says Hines, a critic of the act when it was enacted. Today, he says, “I feel kind of sad that we’re not further down the road.”
After four decades, much remains to be done. According to a recent EPA survey, 54 percent of the nation’s river miles, 69 percent of its lakes and reservoirs, 66 percent of its estuaries, and 85 percent of its wetlands are in some way impaired.
Of course the Clean Water Act didn’t just set goals; it came with large sums of money to reach them. From 1970 to 1995, the federal government spent $61 billion to help cities upgrade and build sewage treatment plants. This sharply reduced the amount of organic pollutants, especially nitrogen and phosphates, that were overloading the nation’s waters.
But federal largess has dwindled. By 1987, the assistance had shifted to a $16 billion revolving loan fund. Mr. Adler says as much as a trillion dollars may be needed over the next 20 years. “The remaining capital needs … are staggering,” he says.
Lake Erie was one of the leading beneficiaries of the Clean Water Act. Its restoration was the “best example of ecosystem recovery in the world,” says Jeffrey Reutter, a biologist at Ohio State University. The main reason was that improved sewage treatment around the lake reduced the amount of phosphorus, an important nutrient for algae, getting into the water.
Since the mid-1990s, however, the amount of phosphorus has begun to rise again. Some still comes from municipal sewage plants, but the chief culprit is farming.
Steve Davis, a watershed specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lima, Ohio, says farmers have in many ways improved their practices. Many no longer plow their land but use “no till” methods. At the same time, they have taken to applying fertilizer in the winter, when it is more likely to wash off the fields.
Mr. Davis encourages farmers to adopt conservation methods such as using cover crops in winter, planting buffer strips along creeks and other waterways, testing soils to determine how much fertilizer their fields really need – and refraining from applying fertilizer in winter. Federal grants offer incentives.
“It’s a big challenge and a complicated problem, but a lot of people are working on it,” he says.
Unger and his fellow charter captains do their part by taking farmers out on Lake Erie to show them what farming is doing to the lake.
One farmer gazed upon the pea-green water and told him, “I don’t know whether to kiss you or hate you. I’m not going to be able to apply fertilizer without thinking of what you stand to lose.”
IN PICTURES: Pollution seen from space