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The Xerces Society » Blog Archive Reflections and Exhortations on the Anniversary of the Clean Water Act

Cuyahoga River Fire

Enacted on October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act revolutionized the approach through which waterways and air pollution are managed, however there’s nonetheless additional to go.

Revolutionizing the means during which waterways and air pollution are managed, and reinforcing a burgeoning nationwide consciousness of the significance of fairly actually cleansing up our act, the Clean Water Act is a key milestone in United States environmental historical past. Enacted on October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act – in any other case generally known as the Federal Water Air pollution Management Act Amendments of 1972 – ushered in an period of stricter air pollution requirements amid public and scientific concern about the state of U.S. waterways.

Cuyahoga River Fire

The Cuyahoga River burns close to downtown Cleveland on June 25, 1952. This was a semi-regular prevalence that was typically met with resignation, however the 1969 Cuyahoga River hearth was totally different in that it gained nationwide consideration and sparked the institution of the Clean Water Act in 1972. (Photograph: US EPA, public area)

Famously, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on hearth, an occasion that was disseminated to an outraged public by vital information retailers, together with Time, which described the Cuyahoga as a river that “oozes rather than flows,” and during which an individual “does not drown but decays.” This emphatic article (out there on-line right here) additionally decried the vital air pollution of different rivers throughout the nation, together with how “the Potomac reaches the nation’s capital as a pleasant stream, and leaves it stinking from the 240 million gallons of wastes that are flushed into it daily.” These putting phrases, and equally impactful photographs, helped to impress public outrage over the state of U.S. waterways—and the Cuyahoga stays a big image to today.

Though clearly a river being so polluted that it catches on hearth ought to be thought-about newsworthy, the timing of all that is considerably puzzling at first look. In any case, the Cuyahoga River had been periodically catching on hearth since the late 1800s. In truth, the 1969 Cuyahoga hearth was neither the most damaging, nor the most dangerous, of these blazes. The most dangerous hearth on the Cuyahoga occurred in 1912, claiming 5 lives. The most expensive hearth, in the meantime, occurred in 1952, when a conflagration on the Cuyahoga decimated boats, a bridge, and a riverfront workplace constructing, inflicting $1 million in damages. Adjusted for inflation, that may be over $9 million at present. (All the Cuyahoga blazes are detailed right here.) These tales have been coated by native information retailers, however didn’t obtain the similar type of nationwide outcry that the 1969 hearth did.

The key distinction is that, by the time of the 1969 Cuyahoga hearth, the burgeoning environmental motion had laid the groundwork for the press, the public, and finally, politicians, to take discover and to take motion. Seven years earlier than, Rachel Carson’s masterpiece Silent Spring was revealed, galvanizing public opinion on pesticides and introducing a extra complete environmental ethos. Previous to that, Carson’s bestselling books about marine ecology, and Jacques Cousteau’s guide The Silent World introduced the underwater realm to the public consciousness.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Louise Carson (Might 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) was an American marine biologist, writer, and conservationist whose ebook Silent Spring and different writings are credited with advancing the international environmental motion. Though Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical corporations, it spurred a reversal in nationwide pesticide coverage, which led to a nationwide ban on DDT and different pesticides, and it impressed a grassroots environmental motion that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Safety Company. (Photograph: Public Area / NRCS)

Numerous different written works emerged, decrying environmental degradation and selling new methods of viewing humanity’s place in the world. Train-ins and protests occurred. Fledgling environmental laws comparable to California’s first vehicle emissions requirements (initially carried out in 1961) and nationwide legal guidelines, together with numerous iterations of the 1948 Federal Water Air pollution Management Act and the 1965 Water High quality Act, pushed People to scale back their collective influence on the setting. The stage was additionally set, of course, by the institution of the U.S. Environmental Safety Company (EPA) in 1970.

The 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act, which strove to “eliminate” the “discharge of pollutants” and make all U.S. waterways “fishable and swimmable” by 1985, mirrored how far we had come as a nation in recognizing the significance of wholesome waterways, and mirrored a rising dedication to defending them. In additional concrete phrases, the Clean Water Act established a complete means of defending our nation’s waterways. Particularly, the incontrovertible fact that the EPA was to implement Clean Water Act laws and enforcement was a big step ahead. The 1948 Federal Water Air pollution Management Act left that very obscure authority to the states, leading to piecemeal enforcement—and typically inaction. In distinction, the Clean Water Act introduced forth precise provisions for federal – and thus complete – enforcement, and stronger requirements.

Since the passage of the Clean Water Act, there have been some vital good points in the enchancment of water high quality and the well being of aquatic ecosystems. In line with the Nationwide Wildlife Federation, on the Clean Water Act’s 45-year anniversary in 2017, “Over the past four decades, the rate of wetland loss slowed, rivers stopped catching fire, and the number of waters that meet clean water goals nationwide has doubled.”

Cuyahoga River

A contemporary view of the Cuyahoga River because it flows via Cleveland, Ohio. The Clean Water Act and native restoration efforts have mixed to dramatically enhance water high quality on this beforehand flammable river. (Photograph: Paul Sableman / Flickr Artistic Commons)

Even the Cuyahoga River, with its lengthy historical past of flammability, is recovering. Because of in depth efforts by federal and state businesses, nonprofits, and group members, “The river lives. Fish populations, health, and variety of species have increased hundreds-fold, recreational activity has grown, and new riverside residential and commercial development speaks to the belief that the river is a good place to live, a resource to protect, and a destination to invest in,” in response to Cuyahoga River Restorationa nonprofit working to revive and shield the environmental high quality of the Cuyahoga River.

Nevertheless, there’s nonetheless quite a bit of room for enchancment. The U.S. missed its 1985 deadline for all waterways turning into “fishable and swimmable,” and we’re, in reality, nonetheless ready on that 33 years later. Water our bodies of all types nonetheless face air pollution points. A really telling instance is the undeniable fact that the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” – a organic desert the place oxygen ranges are too low to help marine life – reached its largest recorded measurement in 2017. Though some lifeless zones happen naturally, many are brought on by people. In the case of the Gulf of Mexico, agricultural runoff is accountable, which is carried to sea by the Mississippi River.

Additionally, based on the 2012 Nationwide Lakes Evaluation revealed by the EPA, 35 % of lakes surveyed had extra nitrogen, 40 % had extra phosphorus, and 31 % “have degraded benthic macroinvertebrate communities, which include small aquatic creatures like snails and mayflies.” In different phrases, agricultural runoff has additionally impacted a big quantity of lakes, depleting many very important species. Freshwater mussels are one other key instance of the impacts of water air pollution on invertebrates. Though these filter feeders can considerably enhance water high quality, they’ve their limits. Excessive ranges of pollution can kill freshwater mussels, a element of their decline throughout a lot of the nation (as defined right here). Certainly, water air pollution doesn’t simply have an effect on people; it might additionally influence the well-being of invertebrates—and complete ecosystems.

Western Pearlshell Mussels

Filter-feeding species comparable to the western pearl shell mussel (Margaritifera
falcata) may also help enhance water high quality to a sure level, but in addition are negatively impacted by vital air pollution. (Photograph: Marie Fernandez)

All of this arguably signifies that we must be strengthening Clean Water Act laws—and we did in 2015, with the Clean Water Rulewhich clarified the definition of “waterways of the United States” to incorporate streams and wetlands. These very important aquatic ecosystems help a wide selection of species, and not directly affect the water high quality of rivers and lakes. Different key revisions to the Clean Water Act from 2015 included limiting the air pollution that electrical energy crops can discharge into waterways and regulating the disposal of coal ash to stop floor and floor water contamination.

Sadly, the present administration has repealed these 2015 revisions, and is weakening the EPA itself—the very company chargeable for overseeing and implementing Clean Water Act requirements. A very regarding development includes the undeniable fact that present recipients of EPA grants at the moment are barred from serving on the Science Advisory Board (SAB) and different panels. The result’s that business officers have taken the place of scientists in numerous advisory positions, which units a discouraging precedent.

Though the future of our nation’s water is at present murky, we nonetheless have time to make issues proper. We’ve got the previous successes of the environmental motion for inspiration, and the analysis and suggestions of lots of of trendy scientists to attempt in the direction of. Keep in mind: We’ve as soon as earlier than risen from the literal ashes of a burning river to evince constructive, albeit incomplete, change for our nation’s waterways. We’re succesful of rising collectively to make a distinction for our water, and for the creatures that depend on it—from invertebrates to people.

Study extra about the Xerces Society’s work to guard freshwater mussels and aquatic ecosystems.

Written by Jenni Denekas, Net and Communications Coordinator

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Though there are growing challenges to Clean Water Act protections, there’s cause for hope. The Cuyahoga River’s exceptional restoration is one such story. Pictured here’s a scene from Cuyahoga Valley Nationwide Park, which was established in 1974, quickly after the passage of the Clean Water Act, and solely 5 years after the Cuyahoga River caught on hearth in downtown Cleveland, OH (a special portion of the river’s span). (Photograph: Cuyahoga JCO / Flickr Artistic Commons)

Tags: aquatic ecosystems, Clean Water Act, conservation, Cuyahoga River, freshwater mussels, coverage

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