What's driving rapid recovery of American waterways?

Since the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act many US streams and rivers have made a surprisingly rapid comeback – but that's only part of the story.

National Park Service
A view of the New River Gorge in West Virginia. US rivers and waterways have become remarkably cleaner since the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972, according to a 2013 report from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Threadfin shad flitting at the mouth of a cove. White bass hugging dock pilings. Mayflies so thick on trees that branches dip into the water where bluegill brunch.

For anyone who likes to cast a lure into the world below, such images are sure signs of a healthy stretch of water. And from Appalachian highland creeks to the “Big Muddy” Missouri River, such scenes are becoming increasingly more common.

There is little doubt that the Environmental Protection Agency and the 1972 Clean Water Act are keystones to dramatic improvements in US water quality, the industrial degradation of which was highlighted by fuel distillates burning on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, in 1969. The act allowed government regulators and individual citizens to sue polluters and force industries to stop dumping raw toxins into rivers, while carving out exemptions for some, primarily farmers and power companies.

Last week, the EPA announced a controversial new rule that would extend its jurisdiction to vast headwater regions that comprise nearly 60 percent of the nation's waterways – a move many heartland conservatives see as overreach by an already powerful federal agency. House Speaker John Boehner has vehemently opposed the rule as “raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs.” The action, which is a response to a 2006 case where the US Supreme Court ruled that many non-navigable waters fell outside the EPA’s jurisdiction, is intended to give Washington more leverage to clean up the 55 percent of US streams that are currently listed in “poor” condition.

The EPA and many environmentalists say those extra protections are needed to retain gains and forge more progress. But the fact that the US also has seen its water run clearer even amid the jurisdictional confusion over headwaters suggests, at least to some, that Americans as a whole are increasingly seeing the quest for cleaner rivers as a reflection not just of water as a basic necessity, but of the country’s core cultural values.

“There’s a sense of threat [from polluted water], which gets into the field of risk perception,” says public opinion researcher Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, in New Haven, Conn. “But there’s also a sense of efficacy [around clean water gains], which basically means that people understand that there are concrete things that they can do as individuals or collectively as groups – whether it’s a neighborhood, a city or a state government – that will make a difference [on water quality]. Without that sense of efficacy, people say, ‘I’m not going to waste my energy on a big problem that I may be scared about, but I can’t do anything about.’ ”

Indeed, the fact that a stretch of the Mississippi River near the Twin Cities went from containing only two live fish to becoming one of the best sport fisheries in the nation suggests that “environmental transgressions, properly atoned, may be forgiven,” as the Waconia, Minn., Sun Patriot’s T.W. Budig wrote recently.

In 2004, even as the US Supreme Court questioned the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction over flowing waters beyond rivers navigable by boat, the EPA began the most ambitious stream quality assessment in the country’s history, testing more than 1,300 representative waterways. 

After establishing baseline data in 2004, the EPA once again tested the waters in 2009, reporting the results in 2013. The report found that some troubled waterways were getting worse, affected by growing amounts of agricultural and storm runoff.

But amid such sobering facts, the EPA study also revealed a more hopeful finding: Many of the country’s rivers and creeks are returning to their natural state.

In a span of only five years, for example, the percent of US stream length found to offer a healthy fish habitat rose from 51 percent to 69 percent, while the percent of stream length showing little evidence of human disturbance rose from 23 to 35 percent.

The reasons for such rapid improvement are varied and often water body-specific. An international agreement banning mid-lake ballast cleaning by container ships has left the Great Lakes far cleaner today than 20 years ago. The construction of secondary sewage treatment plants in Atlanta – prompted by citizen lawsuits and federal court rulings – led to the restoration of the Chattahoochee River.

The Cuyahoga, which became emblematic of America’s abuse of its rivers, has seen its sport fishery return, especially the population of small-mouth bass. (Residents are still warned to only eat fish from the river once a month.)

“Today … people can take canoe or kayak tours of the river through downtown Cleveland, something that would have been unthinkable – and dangerous – 40 years ago,” according to “Waterways Restored,” a recent policy report by Environment America Research and Policy Center.

And on the Missouri, America’s longest river, a government program to lease buffer zones between agricultural fields and rivers contributed to noticeable improvements in water quality over 10 years. And the ban of a harmful termite poison enabled officials to reopen some commercial catfishing grounds. In March, Burr Edde, of Malta Bend, Mo., caught a state record 120-pound catfish on a trotline.

Perhaps the most broadly visible testament to improving water quality is the rise of the bald eagle, America’s national symbol. The species was almost wiped out by DDT, but its remarkable bounceback isn’t just a product of the ban on that particular eggshell-weakening pesticide, but to the swelling bounty of rivers, the eagles’ favorite hunting grounds.

At the same time, the EPA and the Clean Water Act have long been political punching bags in Washington, given the enormous check the federal government now wields on the ability of capitalists to glean profit from what many argue are private land uses. Many farmers and energy groups say state regulators, not federal ones, are best situated to regulate the quality of smaller streams and wetlands, even though those waters eventually join the navigable streams under the EPA’s jurisdiction.

Without proper EPA jurisdiction over smaller waterways, “it’s been easier to destroy those features or pollute them or take actions that otherwise would have triggered some kind of protection under the Clean Water Act,” argues Jon Devine, a water quality expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

Steady improvements in water and air quality have seen a concomitant decrease in support for federal environmental laws, especially among Republicans.  In 1992, 86 percent of Republicans supported “stricter laws and regulations that protect the environment,” a number that declined to 47 percent by 2012, according to the Pew Research Center.

At the same time, the broader consensus around cleaning up America’s waterways is uniquely bipartisan, says Professor Leiserowitz at Yale. His polling shows an “overwhelming” number of Americans in support of the government, whether federal or state, having a large role in protecting the nation’s running waters.

The quest for clean streams “plays out across political lines,” Leiserowitz adds. “For conservatives, especially, the value of purity is a really important one, and it carries ... deeper resonances around religion, spirituality, sin, and morality. Just the same, the word ‘pollution’ carries with it a lot of cultural meaning beyond the parts in a million of arsenic in the water.”

Improving water quality, he adds, also parallels another societal macro trend where “there’s a large-scale shift in public concerns and consciousness around the quality of food and water that we ingest.”

Farmers are at the center of the political debate, although energy advocates have also lambasted the EPA’s new water quality rule. Concerned about having to jump through new regulatory hoops for making small changes to their land, they are demanding that Congress block the rule before it takes effect in July, which the Republican-led chambers have vowed to do. Speaker Boehner has said that the new rule places farmers – as well as landowners, small businesses, and manufacturers – "on the road to a regulatory and economic hell."

The EPA, for its part, says it has retained all previous agricultural exemptions and even added new ones in order to assure farmers that only illegal polluters will be affected. EPA head Gina McCarthy last week called farmers and ranchers “America’s original conservationists.”

Many US farmers take advantage of government programs that give tax easements or lease payments to land owners for creating natural buffer zones that filter pollutants before they get to the river. But a combination of public pressure and technological progress has also pushed farmers to use pesticides and fertilizers more precisely to reduce damaging runoff.

On Tuesday, for example, Campbell Soup joined Wal-Mart, General Mills, and Smithfield Foods in an effort to help farmers in Nebraska and Ohio optimize their soil additives in ways that sustain yield while cutting chemical use by up to 20 percent.

Such fine-tuning by farmers on America’s soybean and corn fields already has had dramatic impacts, reports the US Geological Survey.

Between 1992 and 2001, 17 percent of agricultural streams and 5 percent of mixed-land-use streams had pesticide concentrations that could be harmful to human health, the USGS reported last year. At the end of the ensuing 10 years (2002 to 2011), however, investigators could find only one agricultural stream with dangerous pesticide levels, and no mixed-use-streams with harmful pesticide pollution.

The “decline in the number of streams and pesticides exceeding human-health benchmarks … is consistent with regulatory changes and reductions in use between the two decades for these pesticides,” researchers wrote in the paper, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology last year.

“You really can make a huge difference, because the rivers are constantly moving,” says Jeff Barrow, director of Missouri River Relief, and co-author of “From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers.” “It doesn’t doesn’t take them long to get bad, or to clean up, because they’re dynamic. Every day it’s a new river, really.”

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