Advice for the Clean Water Act on Turning 40

It’s the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act. As those of us who have passed the big 4-Oh have experienced, that birthday has some real significance; it certainly made me reflect on my life so far and what I wanted to do with the second half of it.  (It’s also a time for a great big party, and I hope the Act gets one as good as I had, when my wife – defying all odds to deliver on a preposterous request I made – arranged for me to take batting practice inside Fenway Park.)

Because I have a few (but just a few!) years on the Act, I have some life lessons to pass on as it hits 40. 

Lesson 1: Exercise.

As I neared 40, I’d gotten very comfy on the couch and was out of shape.  So, I committed to my bike commute, even on cold days, and to be active virtually every day.  I’m no Tom Brady today, but I am healthy.

The Act needs to get exercise as well: the robust authority that the law provides needs to be fully implemented.  Unless these provisions are used, our waters will be more polluted than the law envisions.  Unfortunately, there are dozens of ways in which the law has been underused or unimplemented, and some real big items among them.  Here’s a workout regimen for the Act:

  • Protecting Headwater Streams and Wetlands: Headwater streams and wetlands currently lack clear protection under the Clean Water Act, despite the fact that they absorb flood waters, filter pollutants from contaminated water, contribute to the drinking water supply of 117 million Americans, support fish and waterfowl, and feed our rivers and lakes.  EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a set of guidelines in April 2011 for identifying protected waters that are critical to public health, safety, and aquatic ecosystems, but they haven’t yet been issued.  EPA and the Corps must finalize this guidance promptly and develop more durable rules to provide long-term clarity about what is protected.
  • Controlling Urban and Suburban Runoff Pollution: Nationwide, EPA estimates that urban stormwater runoff is the primary source of water quality impairment for 13% of all rivers and streams, 18% of all lakes, and 32% of all estuaries.  At ocean and Great Lakes beaches in 2011, polluted runoff and stormwater caused or contributed to 10,954 beach closing or swimming advisory days.  EPA is currently developing regulations to require runoff controls for certain commercial and residential properties.  EPA must develop and implement reformed regulations promptly, and the regulations must require drive the use of green infrastructure to control stormwater runoff pollution from developed sites. 
  • Restoring Treasured Waters: Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from livestock operations, sewage discharges, and other pollution sources bring about harmful algae blooms, nasty slime that can produce harmful toxins and that can rob water bodies of the oxygen that fish and other animals need to live.  These pollutants are also causing significant harm in the Chesapeake Bay, Florida, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, and in waterways around the nation.  EPA has begun implementing an ambitious cleanup blueprint for the Chesapeake Bay, and it has set limits for these pollutants in some Florida waters, but it has punted on doing more elsewhereEPA must fully implement the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, finalize (and not backtrack on) nitrogen and phosphorus limits for all Florida waters, and it must set standards to protect other treasured waters around the country from similar pollution threats. 
  • Reining In Pollution from Waste Dumping in America’s Waterways: Mountaintop removal coal mining practices have enormous pollution impacts, burying miles of streams under mining waste and contaminating downstream waterways.  The Obama administration has taken some steps to protect Appalachian communities from these impacts, but has failed to pursue the most comprehensive solution to this problem.  The administration should reverse the Bush administration’s rule that classified many kinds of waste as “fill” material that the Corps could authorize industrial operators to dump in our waters. 
  • Curbing Pollution from Livestock Factories: Waste from large factory farms – also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (“CAFOs”) – fouls water bodies across the U.S. with bacteria, nutrients, and other harmful pollutants.  As a government analysis noted, these facilities generate as much or more waste as whole cities.  So it was sad when EPA recently backed off from a modest proposal to simply collect information from these operations.  EPA must immediately require CAFOs to submit critical information, make the results available for public scrutiny, and craft stronger regulations for discharges from CAFOs. 
  • Protecting Swimmers from Waterborne Illness: Under the federal BEACH Act, EPA is responsible for ensuring that coastal recreational waters are safe; as part of that obligation, the agency is supposed to identify allowable pollution levels —called "criteria" in the Clean Water Act—to protect public health.  Swimmers can get a variety of ailments from exposure to water contaminated by urban runoff and sewage spills.  The EPA proposed health criteria treat as acceptable far too many of these illnessesEPA must finalize criteria that adequately protect beach goers. 
  • Preventing Power Plants from Killing Fish:  Industrial cooling water intake structures cause adverse environmental impact by pulling large numbers of fish and shellfish or their eggs into a power plant’s or factory’s cooling system.  EPA has proposed regulations for cooling water intake structures, but the rule is far too weak to protect the aquatic environment.  More protective standards are possible at a reasonable cost to industry and with no adverse effects on electric reliability or consumer prices.  EPA must issue final regulations that include a national categorical standard based on the performance of closed-cycle cooling systems.

Lesson 2: Know who you are and don’t let the haters change you.

A good thing about turning 40 is that by that time you've probably realized that you are what you are and, hopefully, embraced it.  In the decade between 30 and 40, I came to NRDC and found I had a passion for protecting water; decided that the coolest thing I could be was my parents' son, my kids' dad and my wife's husband; and stopped being embarrassed about loving John Denver.  I became proud of who I was and nobody was going to shake me of that view.

So, to the Act and its supporters, I say: be comfortable with what it is – an enormously powerful, comprehensive and, as a result, successful law – and don't let people who care more about profit or political points change how the law is implemented.  Doing so will require vigilance, as the polluters’ friends in Congress, particularly Republicans in the House of Representatives, have repeatedly attacked Clean Water Act protections.  Modest and even really weak clean water regulations and administrative actions have been the target of stand-alone bills or “riders” in government spending bills.  Listing all of these attacks will take too much space and is frankly too dispiriting, but suffice it to say that they include:

Fortunately, although these efforts have gained traction in, or passed, the House, they have not gone further.  I hope that’s because our leaders in Washington understand that the law has been extremely effective – it has led to a huge increase in the percentage of waterways that are now clean enough for all their uses, such as swimming and fishing, and it has dramatically slowed the rate of wetlands loss, to name a couple of benefits.  And, just in case being popular does matter, the Act and its friends can take comfort in the overwhelming popularity of the law and of initiatives to improve water quality.  In polls over more than two decades, water issues consistently dominate the list of Americans’ top environmental concerns; in April, Gallup noted: “the three water concerns in this year's poll have ranked as the top three concerns over any other environmental problems nearly every time they have been asked since 1989. Pollution of drinking water has most often been the top concern.”

Lesson 3: Always welcome new friends into your life.

Finally, life’s too darn short and the world is too full of interesting people whose experiences enrich your own to be a homebody.  Thanks in large part to opportunities to meet the parents of my kids’ friends, I’ve enjoyed my late 30s and early 40s immensely. 

The Act also needs new friends. Groups like NRDC – which was there to assist with the birth of the Act – will of course continue to be important advocates for keeping it strong, as well as critical partners in enforcing the law against polluters.  But I am convinced that the law will be guaranteed a long and happy life when clean water organizations are joined by businesses, community organizations, and labor groups to insist on maintaining the Act because of the economic and employment benefits that flow from clean water and from projects that maintain and improve it.

And I’m delighted to say that this is happening.  As Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, CEO of Green For All (a group that works to raise people out of poverty by fostering a sustainable economy), describes so eloquently in a recent Huffington Post piece:

If we hope to protect America's waterways, we need to support the EPA in enforcing Clean Water Act safeguards. One of the most important ways to do that is by investing in green stormwater infrastructure -- and we'll put millions of Americans to work in the process. But we need our leaders to act now, because when it comes to solving our water crisis, we simply can't afford to wait.

The accompanying video provides some terrific case studies, similar to NRDC’s report, “Rooftops to Rivers.”

Similarly, this week, the Blue-Green Alliance, a collaboration between labor and conservation advocates, put out a compelling policy statement, called “Clean Water, Good Jobs,” which staunchly defended the role of clean water safeguards in a healthy economy and in fostering American jobs.  BGA noted: “Water protection, infrastructure, and efficiency investments offer significant opportunities to create good jobs that strengthen our economy and our communities, safeguard human health, and protect our environment.”

And, as my colleague Karen Hobbs points out today, a number of craft beer brewers have joined NRDC in toasting the Clean Water Act and its importance to their brews. 

So, from one fortysomething to another, happy birthday to the Clean Water Act.  Many happy returns! 

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