Thursday, October 18, 2012

Happy 40th Birthday Clean Water Act!

We all live downstream.  No matter where our home is, from the highest mountains in the Appalachians to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, we are dependent on our community for a healthy water supply.  In the Southeast, water is a relatively abundant resource.  Not only do we have a network of rivers that have stimulated the growth of the region, we also have more species of fishes, turtles, crayfishes, salamanders, and other aquatic animals than any other part of the United States.  These species give us many benefits, from providing popular sport fishing to filtering and cleaning our water.  Whether we are conscious of it or not, the rich aquatic biodiversity and water resources of the Southeast enhance our quality of life.

We haven’t always been good stewards of these rivers that provide for our economy and our environment.  Before we began to grapple with regulating water quality, some rivers were so polluted that their waters could burn from containing oil and other contaminants.  The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire more than a dozen times from the 1860s to the 1960s.  Something was wrong—water was not providing life—it was killing it.

The Cuyohoga River on fire in 1969.  From
Pollution in our waters comes in many forms and from many sources.  Discharge from industrial plants, as well as runoff from our streets and backyards can have a negative impact on our water.  Pollution in the U.S. is comprehensive.  It ranges from very simple substances, like dirt, to very complex molecules, like estrogen-mimicking compounds that aren't currently removed from wastewater treatment processes.  Siltation is also major pollutant in many southeastern streams and springs. 

Siltation in the Conasauga River.  Photo by Todd Crail.
In order to regulate water pollution, Congress passed the Clean Water Act 40 years ago today.  It has dramatically transformed how we prevent and regulate water pollution in our country, and many of our rivers are recovering as a result.  Under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for industries and how, when, and how much pollution they discharge into the water.  

Prior to the Clean Water Act, only one third of the nation’s rivers, lakes, and estuaries were safe for fishing and recreation.  In 40 years, we have doubled that number, and now 60% of our waters are safe.  This is not only beneficial to human health, but to wildlife as well.  Aquatic organisms have recolonized areas that were severely degraded prior to the passing of the Clean Water Act.  This piece of legislation is one of the many reasons TNACI is able to reintroduce Lake Sturgeon into the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.  In addition, we can now easily catch fishes in the Cahaba River in Alabama that we rarely saw twenty years ago—like Coal Darters and Goldline Darters

Goldline Darters (Percina aurolineata).  Photo by Dr. Bernard Kuhajda
While the Clean Water Act has significantly improved water quality in rivers, lakes, and streams of the U.S., 40% of our waters are considered unsafe and are still facing challenges.  Treatment of industry discharge can fail or lapse, almost instantly increasing pollution in rivers exponentially.  Non-point-source pollution in the form of siltation from erosion and nutrients from yards and agriculture can degrade water quality to the point where aquatic organisms cannot survive.  While the Clean Water Act has the authority to regulate non-point source pollution, it is much more difficult to control.  The construction industry must provide silt barriers when completing projects near any water body or ditch leading to water, but these are ineffective if improperly installed or not maintained.  Much of the non-point source pollution affecting our rivers comes from individual practices, and it is changes in our daily actions that can make a difference.

Even in areas with abundant water supply, like the Southeastern U.S., we all need to think about decreasing our individual consumption to sustain the supply because droughts are unpredictable and widespread.  What long-term strategies can ensure that we will continue to have water for our personal use and that we will have an environment our children can enjoy through fishing, swimming, and boating?
  • Regulate development.   With effective land-use planning we can continue to grow while not threatening the availability of water for humans and animals. 
  •  Increase the amount of permeable surfaces and retention ponds in our cities and suburbs so that rain does not run-off gutters and streets directly into our rivers but instead recharges groundwater storage.
  • Protect forested banks along rivers, called riparian zones, which keep sediments and pollutants from directly entering our streams and degrading water quality.
  • Protect imperiled animals, such as mussels, which not only filter and clean our water for free, but also are pillars of some fishing industries. 
  • Reduce use of nutrients on yards and agricultural fields.  In addition, we affect the quantity and quality of water available to our downstream neighbors.  Out of the 31 states that make up the Mississippi River drainage, Tennessee is one of nine that are contributing 75% of the nutrient pollution that is creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

As Alexandra Cousteau said when she visited the Tennessee Aquarium last month, we are our watershed.  I am part of the Tennessee River.  The Clean Water Act is a major player in keeping my river clean, but there are things that I, and that we all must do to keep it that way.  Keeping the Tennessee River healthy is part of keeping myself healthy. 

Co-Authors: Anna L. George and Ashford S. Rosenberg