40 Years Of (Almost) Clean Water

Back in the late ’60′s, I attended school in a small town in central New York.  Meandering through the village was a small stream, with houses alongside, and also along the school buildings.  It then emptied into a larger stream at the edge of town.  While I have my share of fond memories of that time, two memories are not fond at all.  The first was that during warm or hot days, you did not want to open a window on the stream side of the school, or go outdoors.  The second is the fairly regular epidemics of hepatitis that the town went through.  They both had the same cause:  The stream was also the village sewer.

That all changed before I graduated.  In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed.

Passed in 1972, the act established the goals of eliminating releases of high amounts of toxic substances into water, eliminating additional water pollution by 1985, and ensuring that surface waters would meet standards necessary for human sports and recreation by 1983.

The impetus for that law was the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969.  At the time, it was recognized that the river was badly polluted, and it had caught fire in the past.  A documentary in 1967 detailed the problem, but stated that it was unlikely to be successfully solved, because “the costs to municipalities and businesses would be staggering.”  Sound familiar?   President Nixon vetoed the bill when it was passed because of those reasons, and his veto was overridden by Congress.  Think about that – both parties had to vote that way to do it.

40 years later, this is the result on the Cuyahoga:

It’s one of the success stories of the environmental movement:

Today, four decades later, the Clean Water Act stands as one of the great success stories of environmental law. Supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, the act took a completely new approach to environmental protection. The law flatly stated there would be no discharge of pollutants from a point source (a pipe or ditch) into navigable waters without a permit. No more open sewers dumping crud into the local stream or bay. Permits would be issued by environmental officials and require the installation of the best available pollution-control technologies.

 The waste flushed down drains and toilets needed a different approach, so the Clean Water Act provided for billions of dollars in grants to construct and upgrade publicly owned sewage-treatment works around the nation.
That, in addition to New York’s already passed laws (and grants) led the village where I went to school to install a sewage treatment plant.  No longer did the stream through the village smell when the weather was warm.   Hepatitis epidemics disappeared.  Today, most of the people living there, and in particular most of those under 50 have no memory of those days.   They’ve never been able to tell when someone flushed their toilet by watching a gush out of a pipe into a stream.  They’ve never seen a stream foam from detergents, or watched clumps of toilet paper float downstream or coat the rocks.  They can go fishing there, and actually catch fish.
It’s been a big improvement since “the good old days.”   Streams and lakes that were once considered “dead” are now coming back to life.   But as successful as that was, there is still more to be done.  The Clean Water Act only addressed point sources.  There is still a problem with non-point sources:
As a result, pesticides, manure, and other pollutants have flowed into streams, rivers, and eventually lakes and bays. To take the most frightening consequence, the Mississippi River basin, draining one-third of the country, empties nutrient-laden waters into the Gulf of Mexico. There, the aptly named “Dead Zone” regularly grows to 6,000 square miles or more, suffocating sea life that cannot swim away from its oxygen-starved waters. Storm-water runoff with oil and trash also threatens water quality around urban areas
As well as new pollutants that have come from modern living.  We also have the legacy of pollution to finish cleaning up.  Sadly, that isn’t happening.  The same arguments that were trotted out in 1967 are in vogue today.  It’s “too expensive,”and  “too burdensome.”   It’s short-term thinking, and it’s sad.  There was a time when both parties said “enough!,” and thought that rivers shouldn’t catch on fire.  They had the will to do it, and it worked.
Maybe it worked too well.  Maybe if they could still smell the rivers,  their constituents were getting sick with water-borne diseases, and they could watch fires on water, they’d realize that there was a problem.   The problems today aren’t quite as obvious, but are just as serious.  All we really need to deal with them is the will to do so.
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5 responses to “40 Years Of (Almost) Clean Water

  1. Vic78

    The sad thing about all of this is that infrastructure is in place. All they have to do is give the president a bill. It’ll be a dream if Congress were working on environmental bills. We have to do something about those psychotic oil people.

    • It’s not just the oil people, although they’ve got their share of blame. Most of the problems we still have aren’t in the “start from scratch” category, or require new technology. Sometimes it’s simple measures, like preventing fertilizer from running off of fields – which I would think most farmers would consider “a good thing.” :roll: That, and seriously, people do not need perfect lawns.

  2. We need to forgo any trips to the Moon or Mars or asteroids until we address the serious ecological issues on this planet. Big government can do wondrous, life-saving things, but we’ve allowed big corporations to stand in the way. It’s time to change that – or, it may well be way past time.

    • I think we should do both. To be honest, the cost of NASA missions isn’t going to make a big impact in funding environmental changes. I should also point out that the technologies developed – or needed – for long-term space missions often has quite a bit to do with cleaning up here, and renewable energy. ;-)