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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Clean Water Act

Air Date: Week of

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The Clean Water Act is thirty years old this week. Host Steve Curwood talks with Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, about some of the Act’s accomplishments, and the challenges that lie ahead.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Clean Water Act turns 30 this week. Some of us are old enough to remember the crisis facing the nation's waterways in the late 60s and early 70s. Record fish kills were commonplace. Rivers, including the Hudson in New York and the Charles in Boston were dying, and what became the most enduring symbol of that era, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, caught fire. When Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the goal it set was ambitious – "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters." Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum joins me now from Washington. Anna, here we are some three decades later. Tell me, how effective has the Clean Water Act been?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, we have made progress. There's no question our waters are cleaner today than they were in the 1970s. Much of that's due to the effort that was made right away to get point sources of pollution cleaned up. These are places like factories, chemical plants, paper mills, also water treatment plants that treat raw sewage.

Initially, the major push was getting these types of facilities to cut down on their discharge, to use better technology to control their waste. And all of it made a difference. There are rivers that are swimmable today that weren't 30 years ago. There are lakes that are now fishable. The problem is, over the past ten years or so, the progress has sort of plateaued. And actually, the EPA just came out with its latest Water Quality Inventory report that finds our waters were actually dirtier in 2000 than they were in 1998. Overall, about 45 percent of the nation's waters aren't meeting water quality standards. Now that's down from about 60 or 70 percent 30 years ago, but it's still a substantial number.

CURWOOD: Well Anna, if all those sources have already cut down on their pollution, why is there still such a problem?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well there are plenty of people, both at the EPA and among environmental groups, who tell you that there are many facilities and factories that are still violating the Act. There is also a major problem with funding for water programs. But beyond the direct sources I've mentioned are also all the other sources of pollution that don't come from a particular pipe or plant. Here we're talking about things like agriculture, construction sites, suburban yards or urban storm water; all the diffuse sources of oil and chemicals and nutrients that drain off into the watersheds. These are called non-point sources, and in general, they're not as simple to identify and control. Yet the EPA estimates they account for at least half the water pollution in the U.S. today.

CURWOOD: My understanding is that there is a component of the Clean Water Act that's meant to deal with these so-called non-point sources.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, you're right. There is a program called the Total Maximum Daily Load program, or TMDL, and the basic idea there is after all the best technology has been put into place on the direct sources of pollution, states are supposed to take a look at their waters, determine which ones are still impaired, and develop a plan of action to clean them up. That could mean looking at different land use plans for suburbs. It could mean requiring animal feed lots to handle their waste differently. Really, Steve, the TMDL program was meant as a sort of mop-up, so to speak, for the Clean Water Act.

CURWOOD: And how well is this working?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, it hasn't come that far. Many of the states have listed their impaired waters, but as far as coming up with a plan and implementing it, there hasn't been much progress. There's a lot of opposition to the TMDL program, in particular from the farm industry and local and state water officials, who say the program isn't flexible enough. And so the Bush administration has now stepped in. It says it wants to address these concerns. It's proposed a slew of changes to the TMDL program. One change, for instance, would allow a state to reclassify certain water bodies. If the goal for one particular river has been to make it drinkable, for example, the state could change that goal to fishable, which would lower the water quality standards and make them easier to reach.

CURWOOD: Anna, can you give us a quick run down of the other changes that the Bush administration has pushed for in the Clean Water Act over this past year?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, probably the first major change came a year ago last October, when the Army Corps of Engineers announced it was changing what's known as the No Net Loss policy for wetlands. Basically, No Net Loss requires developers to replace every acre of wetland they fill with at least another acre of wetland. Now the Army is waiving that requirement, which will make it easier for developers to build in and around wetlands.

Then this spring, the Corps issued a new rule that makes it legal, under the Clean Water Act, to fill water bodies with mining, and other types of wastes.

And then just this last month, the Administration announced what could potentially be much more far-reaching changes. It said it's looking to clarify which types of water bodies the Clean Water Act actually has jurisdiction over. In particular what they're questioning is whether water bodies like isolated wetlands or intermittent streams are included under that umbrella. One EPA official I spoke with said it's likely they're going to recommend leaving those water bodies to the states to manage. So really what they're talking about is a major change in the way the Clean Water Act works. Needless to say, I think you can expect a pretty big fight from the environmental community as this moves forward.

CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum is Living on Earth's Washington correspondent. Thanks, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You're welcome, Steve.



EPA’s Office of Water


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