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

A Look Ahead at the Clean Water Act

Air Date: Week of

Scientists dissect fish to look for evidence of endocrine disruption. (USGS)

There are some chemicals the Clean Water Act was never set up to manage, but they may be having very real effects on fish. Hosts Steve Curwood and Ashley Ahearn explore the emerging threats to clean water. Then Steve Curwood turns to Katherine Baer of American Rivers for a look at the Clean Water Act in the coming years.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

AHEARN: And I’m Ashley Ahearn. Welcome back to our special broadcast with EarthFix, marking the fortieth anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

CURWOOD: We’re going to take a look ahead now to the future of the Clean Water Act and some of the challenges and emerging threats to clean water.

AHEARN: Despite the progress that’s been made, there are some chemicals that the Clean Water Act never saw coming.

CURWOOD: Chemicals that can be found in household chemicals and personal care products, among other places. Some of them have been shown to mimic the hormones in our bodies. They can slip through sewage treatment.

AHEARN: Some research is showing that’s a problem for fish. Scientists here first realized there was something weird going on with fish around here about 10 years ago.
I visited the lab of Lyndal Johnson. She's a fisheries biologist and toxicologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She told me about the time she and some of her colleages were out near Seattle’s waterfront sampling English Sole, that’s a flat fish that’s common here.

JOHNSON: And this was when we noticed these fish in Elliot Bay, when all the other fish had completed spawning, ready to go home, and it’s all over for them, the Elliot Bay fish were still ripe and still had eggs that they had not yet spawned.

AHEARN: The team went back and sampled more fish around Puget Sound and found even creepier results. Some male fish were producing a protein called vitellogenin.

WEST: You don’t want to see that in males.

AHEARN: That’s Jim West, a senior scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He was out on the water with Lyndal Johnson when they found the weird fish. Vitellogenin is a protein used to make egg yolks, so you find it in mature females, but never in males.

WEST: It’s an indication that they’ve been exposed to something, some chemical, that is essentially feminizing them.

AHEARN: These fish weren’t dying. From the outside, they didn’t even look different. But there were striking changes going on inside them. The team took more samples. The results: almost half of the 49 male English sole they tested on the Seattle waterfront were producing the female egg yolk protein. The researchers found similar results in the juvenile Chinook salmon they tested at that site.

But the fish here are not alone. The US Geological Survey collected bass from more than 100 rivers around the country. A third of those fish showed signs of feminization and intersex characteristics. Don Tillit is a toxicologist with the USGS in Columbia, Missouri.

TILLIT: Mainly what we saw were oocytes in what would otherwise be normal testicular tissues.

AHEARN: Testes with eggs in them.

TILLIT: Testes with eggs in them, exactly.

AHEARN: Pinpointing the exact chemicals that are causing this feminization and intersex development has been the biggest challenge for scientists so far. But many believe a group of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors are to blame. They’re sort of like hormone imposters. They act like natural hormones – estrogen or testosterone for example – and mess with the body’s natural hormonal messaging system.

Bisphenol A is probably the most well-known chemical in this family. You’ll find it in certain plastics, the liners of canned goods, epoxies – even kid’s toys. Synthetic estrogen from birth control pills has also been shown to feminize fish. These chemicals get into our bodies and then end up in wastewater. Tillit says that wastewater, even though it’s been treated, carries some of the chemicals into nearby waterways.

TILLIT: It’s not surprising that in certain locations, downstream from wastewater treatment plants, are some of the most common locations where we can find intersex.

AHEARN: The problem, Steve, is that even the most modern wastewater treatment facilities aren’t specifically designed to remove this new class of chemicals.

CURWOOD: That’s right. I talked with Katherine Baer about that – and other issues facing the Clean Water Act right now. Katherine Baer is the senior director of the Clean Water program at American Rivers and I asked her how we’re doing dealing with these emerging chemical contaminants that are getting into our waterways.

BAER: IN: The area of emerging contaminants and hormone disrupting chemicals is one area that the Clean Water Act so far doesn’t cover, because when the Clean Water Act was written those had not been recognized as threats. So I think right now we’re in the stage that they are suspected threats but a lot of research is going on to figure out how these contaminants effect people and fish and wildlife at very low levels and in combination over time and those sorts of determinations are very difficult to make and require a lot of science.

At the same time, from a precautionary perspective, it would be good to go ahead and sort of proactively address some of those threats to the extent that we can… at least reduce the sources, and increase the treatment where it’s possible in the mean time and again because that will require some investment there’s been hesitancy to do too much before more information is available. And so it is another area that the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act are really going to have to grapple with in the coming years.

CURWOOD: So in other words we’re really not protected from those chemicals now.


CURWOOD: So when you look at threats to Clean Water in this country now what do you see at the top of the list? Where should efforts be focused – those big single source polluters or should that focus be shifting perhaps?

BAER: Yeah, I think it’s a little bit of a half and half answer. We’ve made so many strides on the point source area that certainly we do need to focus on the non-point source pollution. But before doing that, I think it’s important to realize that we really do still have over 850 billion gallons of pollution in the form of sewage, either partially treated or not treated at all, going into rivers and streams every year, so we still need to make sure that we invest in our water infrastructure, which is an area we really are about to fall back on. And with population growth and climate change, we need to keep our eye on that ball for the point sources.

But I think it’s true that the area where we really have opportunities to make gains, to try to figure out how we do better control polluted storm water runoff from urban areas, and that’s really great area, a really rich area to be working because the science and the local governments and the practioners have really learned a lot over the last 20 years about how to better do that. So we have a great opportunity now to actually imbed within the Clean Water Act policies that we have to make it more widespread and more effective for clean water.

CURWOOD: What’s missing, in your opinion, from the Clean Water Act? It’s 40 years old, if you could update it, what would you do?

BAER: The big issue for the Clean Water Act that stands out is that there’s a gap for agriculture. And I think, over the long term, we really need to find a way to fairly address agricultural sources of pollution. And not necessarily all of them, but certainly the ones that are commensurate or equal to industrial pollution and other categories. So, hog farms, major chicken operations, bring those into the folds of the Act. So there is more equity among the pollution sources that are creating problems for our streams and rivers and can make waters more healthy across the country.

CURWOOD: How effective is the Clean Water Act in dealing with the present reality of increased drought and climate disruption? I’m thinking for example of this conflict involving the Missouri River Basin. Folks downstream in the Mississippi want more water for barge traffic and folks to the west would like to see that water diverted into the Colorado where water is very short.

BAER: It’s a great point. When people think of climate change, they don't always think about water. But, point of fact, climate is hitting our water resources. Already is. And it’s hitting them sort of first and worst with more frequent, intense floods and droughts throughout the country which is really creating more extremes that is going to further stress our water resources as you mentioned on the Missouri and in many other places.

So, at this point, we are quite honestly not that well equipped to face climate change and its impact on water resources. I think moving forward – and it’s another area where the Clean Water Act could be a bit stronger – trying to think about the future and how our approaches to clean, and safe, and reliable water could be more resilient and how do we build in safeguards to systems.

So, flooding is a good example – if we could better use our floodplains to actually buffer some of the floods and droughts. That works to both reduce floods in wet times, but also to help soak up and recharge water into our rivers in dry times. By doing that, both with floodplains and our sort of small streams, the capillaries of our watersheds, those are going to be really important approaches.

CURWOOD: Katherine Baer, tell me about some of the important cases in the Supreme Court, or other court cases relating to the Clean Water Act that you’re watching particularly closely now, and why.

BAER: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. The Supreme Court has definitely taken on a number of environmental cases in the past year. And there are several that are sort of interesting. There was one that was argued several weeks ago… this was the LA Country Flood Control district vs. the Natural Resources Defense Council, and it was a very confusing case factually, but sort of at its core, it was about who’s responsible. Who is liable for polluted storm water runoff in municipal areas.

So, that will be a very interesting one to watch because it’s really important to make sure that polluters are held accountable for the credences of pollution permits if they are contributing. That’s sort of at the core of the Clean Water Act.

Another case that I think is interesting, and it hasn’t been heard at all, so it’s just at the entry level, is a case questioning whether it’s legal to do something called water quality trading under the Clean Water Act. And this is a case brought by Food and Water Watch. And it’s interesting because there’s a growing interest in trying to figure out new ways to control non-point source pollution, as we discussed, and one of them is to say, well, could a sewage treatment plant, for instance, pay a farmer to reduce pollution if that was more cost effective.

So, this lawsuit actually questions well, under the Clean Water Act, is that legal? Are there mechanisms that make that legal or illegal, and before trading can really gain traction, I think some of these legal issues do need to be resolved.

CURWOOD: I could imagine, though, if I were downstream from that sewage plant that doesn’t do so well, I wouldn’t be very happy if they were getting credit so they could keep on polluting right in my backyard or where I want to fish.

BAER: Yeah, you got it right on. There are major questions about if you’re trading, are we creating more pollution sources in one place and benefitting some people and making it worse in others. Creating essentially another version of the hot-spot.

CURWOOD: And if history is any guide, the folks who would get the extra dose of pollution might not have as much money as the rest of society, might not be the majority ethnicity: environmental justice, in other words.

BAER: I think environmental justice concerns are something that is brought up regularly in the context of water quality trading. Who benefits and who receives the burden.

CURWOOD: What do you see as the political threats to the Clean Water Act, that it faces now?

BAER: The political threats to the Clean Water Act have been pretty fast and furious. There has been really a constant assault on the Clean Water Act, primarily from the House of Representatives. And we’ve seen attacks on the actual fundamental structure of the Clean Water Act. There was one legislative proposal that actually would have sort of basically removed the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to veto the very, very worst permits that threaten fish and wildlife and public health.

And, this is a veto power that has been used 13 times over the last 40 years, and so it is very seldomly used but somehow we’re still trying to strip some of those very important backstops out of the Clean Water Act. And then in the budget process, we’ve seen riders, attempts to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from doing their job in a number of ways, for example trying to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act and also very specific rollbacks to specific provisions. So, trying to stop funding for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, that has been a long time in the making, as well as a number of more specific provisions.

It’s been a little disheartening given how much support there is for clean water across the country that we’re still seeing these sort of efforts, renewed efforts to weaken our clean water protections, when really, at the 40th anniversary, we need to be moving forward, not backward. I guess I just think of it, really, in a personal way. I’m a parent, as many people are, and my daughter is at that age, she’s eight, she just loves to swim. I can’t get her out of the water once she’s in, and I think about how along with millions of other Americans, we live very close to a river in our hometown, but we can’t swim there, it’s not clean enough.

And really that’s the vision of the Clean Water Act, is that all of us, you know, my daughter, everyone else’s children, their dogs, their friends, where you are that the waters are safe enough and clean enough to swim or fish. And so that vision is really important and we’re not there yet, but certainly we’re much closer than we were. I think that’s an important part of the Clean Water Act that’s really worth protecting and fighting for.

CURWOOD: Your daughter is eight; what are you looking forward to when she turns 48, in the next 40 years for the Clean Water Act?

BAER: (Sighs.) I would love it if my daughter, by the time she’s 48, and surely she’ll still be swimming and enjoying rivers, that the Clean Water Act would not only address some of the very obvious gaps like agricultural pollution, it would also be trying to figure out: ‘well, what are the things of the future.’ And it may include things like emergent contaminants that you just mentioned.

But also, are there ways to take a more comprehensive approach to our environment. And so, I think about, for example, that we have laws for air quality, water quality, drinking water that are separate right now. But many of these things are really connected as environmental systems. So, if a city for example, planted trees to reduce storm water runoff, but there also is a co-benefit for air quality, should we be thinking of those systems?

And similarly, do we get energy efficiency benefits by using a green roof and also reducing sewer overflows and flooding. So, I think there are a lot of more comprehensive approaches and sort of areas of innovation that are untapped right now. So, trying to better reuse water and capture energy from wastewater and a lot of emerging technologies that we can better incorporate into our regulatory and policy systems as we move forward. And so I hope that when my daughter is 48, I hope that she is living in a world that has a very smart and comprehensive approach to clean water and one where she and possibly her children will be swimming in clean water wherever they live.

CURWOOD: Katherine Baer is Senior Director of Clean Water Programs at American Rivers, thank you so much Katherine.

BAER: Thank you for having me.

[MUSIC: Ernest Ranglin “Memories Of Barber Mack” from memories Of barber Mack (Island Records 1996).]

CURWOOD: And Ashley, that brings us to the end of our special program in partnership with EarthFix. It’s been great to have you back on Living on Earth!

AHEARN: It's been great to have a chance to work together again, Steve.



More about Lyndal Johnson of NOAA

More about Katherine Baer of American Rivers


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