Note: The text of this post became an OPED piece distributed by the Bay Journal News Service on 10/17/2017. Click here to view or download the pdf of the article. USA Today published it on 10/19/17
The Clean Water Act is 45 years old this week, born in the U.S. Congress on October 18, 1972. Sometime before this day, the river of my childhood – the Roanoke River in southwestern Virginia – had been declared a fire hazard because of pollution.
I learned to waterski on that river, or rather on one of the manmade lakes along its winding path. It was 1965 and I remember one of those skiing lessons in particular. Dad was the spotter, and his friend George was the driver. I jumped in the water and waited for the handles of the ski rope. When the tips of my skis were up and my butt down, I yelled, “forward!”
Raw Sewage Floated By
As the boat began pulling me forward, I saw banana peels and “floaters” – human waste – drifting past. I was ten years old, and it gave me the heebie-jeebies. “Hit it,” I shouted, now doubly motivated to get up and out of the water.
Clean Water Act Requires a Permit For That
America now has perhaps the best wastewater treatment in the world. All industries and municipalities that discharge pollution into U. S. waters must have permits to do so. They cannot exceed their allocation of pollution. It’s regulation that works. It was not easy getting to this point. There was much gnashing of teeth, whining, litigation and political feuds, but all “point” sources of pollution (coming out of a pipe) in this country are now regulated. For good reason.
And now we’ve turned our attention to the far more complex problem of “non-point” source water pollution. It finds its way into rivers and streams from virtually everywhere. It comes from stormwater runoff from roads, roofs, parking lots, over-fertilized lawns and golf courses, from pesticides, herbicides and malfunctioning septic fields, from bare ground, heavily fertilized crops, over-grazed pastures, livestock waste and all sorts of other human and natural activities.
BMPs for Non-Point Source Water Pollution
We’ve come a long way since the passage of the Clean Water Act. Before then we occasionally worried about industrial pollution – and we never spoke of stormwater management, nutrient management, riparian buffers, livestock exclusion from streams, no-till farming, conservation easements, rain gardens and any other best management practices that today add up to greatly improved water quality.
Before my first successful water ski on that polluted lake, there was no Chesapeake Bay Foundation (DOB 1967), There was no Earth Day (DOB 4/22/70), or EPA (DOB 12/2/70), and there were precious few scientists specializing in water quality or the effects of nutrient-choked water on the aquatic plants and animals. The terms “non-point” source water pollution, “watershed restoration” “greenways”, and “blueways” had yet to enter the common vernacular.
The Clean Water Act is a Roadmap for Success
The Clean Water Act gave us a roadmap for responsible land use, and today our streams, rivers, lakes, and estuaries are measurably cleaner than they were in the 1960’s. This despite the fact that we’ve added over 100 million people to our population. The Chesapeake Watershed alone is home to more than 18 million people, and that number is expected to hit 20 million by 2030. Given those disadvantages, the progress is pretty impressive.
We’ve done this by using the law, sound science, strong partnerships, outdoor education, advocacy, incentives, consequences for blatant polluters and litigation – all enabled by the Clean Water Act and driven by people and organizations that believe clean water is good for all.
Celebrate Major Achievements
We are moving forward for cleaner water and we can celebrate major achievements. Such as a freshwater stream once again supporting Brook Trout, or a wastewater treatment plant discharging cleaner water than the stream it dumps into. The Chesapeake Bay, America’s largest estuary, had no dead zones last year…the first time since the sixties.
Think of all the cities and towns that now have walkways along their rivers or streams because of cleaner water. In Virginia alone, we have Alexandria, Richmond, Strasburg, Lexington, Luray, Waynesboro, and many more. Think of all the jobs created by our desire for cleaner water: nurseries growing trees and shrubs for stream buffers, for example, or contractors hired to build fences to keep cows out of streams. One company in Waynesboro, Virginia, Conservation Services, supplies the entire North American continent with tree shelters.
High Tide Raises All Ships
The benefits of clean water are immeasurable, more recreation, more seafood, healthier livestock and a stronger economy. As they say, a high tide raises all ships.
Torpedoes of Ignorance, Greed and Science Denial
But there are now torpedoes of ignorance, greed, and science denial in the water – launched by the Trump administration, and aimed at the fundamental environmental laws that have gotten us so far. I gnash my teeth. They want to “water down” the definition of “Waters of the United States” so that polluters can get away with it and thereby increase their profit margins. They want to zero out funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program and for clean water initiatives everywhere and seek to discredit scientists and hide or destroy their research.
Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead
I say damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. We – and every last one of us – need to tell our representatives in Washington that clean water is vital to our future as a country, and they must continue to fully fund clean water initiatives.
We simply cannot afford to weaken the Clean Water Act; we cannot afford to go back to the filthy water of the 1960s.
Another excellent article but the Trump bashing is beneath you sir. We had a Republican President during the enactment of the Clean Water Act just for the record and President Clinton cut all the funding for PL 566 that effected our watershed dams and programs in 1995 (with Pearlie Reeds help); a Democrat. I have seen more wetlands drained and fence rows removed under the Obama administration here in Michigan than at anytime prior. My major workload my last 3 years was rolling back determination made under the Reagan administration that kept those farms in compliance.
We had a similar experience growing up. For me it was the green tide along Lake Erie that is back with a vengeance. The Cuyahoga River was on fire in Cleveland then from pollution. It is worse now than in 1969 that makes me question how any other watershed in the country can be doing better especially with so much more urban runoff and population pressure.
I do not believe visual assessments of clean water today and need to see some empirical data to back up claims about the Bay being better including heavy metals and other toxic pollutants still in the sediment. That stuff doesn’t go away unless it is dredged. We’re doing that here at a Super Fund site in the neighborhood.
I prefer to act as an individual and not depend on Washington or elected officials to do things for me as a farmer and citizen I should be doing myself. For example, I did over 250k acres of pest management and wildlife planning this Summer in the Saginaw Bay that made the annual goals for 5 counties for the next 5 years. No charge to taxpayers with maximum results. Over half the aerial pesticide spraying here within 30 square miles was eliminated the last 4 months by my volunteer efforts at my own time and expense. I worked closely with EPA, Army Corps and MDARD with no limits.
The government is not going to save us or save the environment. It is up to each of us to accept personal responsibility and for the environment working in our own backyards and neighborhoods.
He is also President Trump. Let him know your personal feelings on Twitter each more as I do Bobby. He’s learning. He is also not the same person since accepting Jesus into his heart last year and listens to his group of spiritual advisers. Sonny gets an earful from me also. I am not impressed with his overall knowledge as our new Ag Secretary. He would qualify for the 457 series, that for sure. You need to go talk with him.
Jim, thanks for your exuberant comment. I have to disagree on several points. For one, the Chesapeake Bay is truly improving according to science. Our journey is a stellar example of individual commitment, partnerships and federal/state and local assistance. The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is working. Trump and his anti-science partners are in the process of dismantling and defunding this progress along with every aspect of environmental stewardship. I have been to the Great Lakes region and seen first hand the lack of conservation and I believe that your EPA region 5 has a history of not carrying out the intent of the law. It’s politics at its worst.
I applaud you for saying, “I prefer to act as an individual and not depend on Washington or elected officials to do things for me as a farmer and citizen I should be doing myself. . . . . . It is up to each of us to accept personal responsibility and for the environment working in our own backyards and neighborhoods.” I so wish that were true, because if everyone did the right thing, then we would never have needed an EPA or a Clean Water Act. But, the simple truth is that the EPA and the Clean Water Act have absolutely helped this nation improve its water quality. There is empirical evidence of this in a lot of places, especially in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. If you look for it, you will find it, and it is not alternative facts, it’s science.
Donald Trump hired a guy that he knew would try to gut the EPA. He did it on purpose hoping to curb all those regulations that cost corporations money. Donald Trump doesn’t know anything about water quality or the progress made in such in the last four and a half decades. Based on what I have seen since he became President, I think that he doesn’t care about you or me or Jesus or anyone else for that matter, other than the person he sees in his mirror. When I think of Donald Trump’s character, I am reminded of a statement by Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”
Gnashing with you. And yes, Full Speed Ahead with hope and righteous indignation! At least we are each free to pursue these best practices on our own, knowing that they are the only meaningful investments in the future. To buffer our headwaters springs and streams, grow new forests, improve our soil organic matter, increase biodiversity and switch to renewable energy strategies. That’s how to withstand this siege!
That is a great blog post; I think it is your best ever.
I believe that most everyone in the conservation community would agree with you; and I most certainly do.
Thank you for posting it, and with your permission ,I would like to forward it on to people in the Piedmont who might
Not know of your wonderful website and unusually thoughtful blogpots
George, thanks. Of course, you can share. We need all the help we can get.
Sandy, thank you so much for taking the time to write your beautiful message. Spot on.
My good friend Carol gave me permission to post her email here:
So Jesus entered Trump’s heart and said unto him,
“Go ye out into this great land I have given you and rid it of every homeless refugee. Keep all the wealth for yourself.
Let the mighty corporations pollute the land and the water so that you may have wealth on top of wealth. No matter what the young children and other weak individuals will become asthmatic and ill. Also, perhaps I created too many wild things anyway.
Blessed are the proud, for they will inherit the earth”
Thank you for another great blog post, Bobby. George and I agree with all our hearts.
Great Article Bobby
Love Carol’s comment How true it is
Greed is all the Trump administration think about
not the environment not people just themselves
Diane, thanks so much for stopping in and posting.
Ah yes, Bobby, I’ve been doing some “teeth gnashing” lately too. I hope that the next four(?) years won’t turn around all of the progress of the past 40-some years. We didn’t get to the worst bad old days instantly, of course, but we also didn’t have the numbers of either people or industries and corporations that we have now.
Having just returned from a few days at Virginia Beach, I rejoiced to see long lines of dolphins heading south and almost equal lines of brown pelicans heading north. I can remember when seeing either was a very rare sight. DDT was the culprit there. Of course, the ocean water temperature at the edge was 71 F. There were children playing in the surf in late October! That is a pretty new development, and a serious problem. Climate silence is now more prevalent than climate denial, so please add that to your list for the torpedo treatment! Thanks friend, Anne
Anne, amen to that! Thanks for posting your comment. I remember well when there are no pelicans….and never a Bald Eagle in Swoope. We now have a nesting pair. Thank you, Rachel Carson…
This is one of my favorite posts thus far I believe. I love how you can truly relate water quality and health back to your own personal experiences. It is amazing that one could visibly see the human waste in water sources, but it brings me hope to know that there have been no dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. This proves that we must maintain and continue to improve the conservation, remediation, and restoration practices we have put in place.
As for the current political administration in place…that’s another issue. I completely agree that we must persevere and continue on forward because this is a democracy that allows for freedom of speech. I believe that a lot of the issues we are facing result from ignorance in addition to money or power struggles. Hopefully, by joining together and sharing the facts of science, we will be able to make waves.
Hanna, thanks for your comment…ignorance, money, and power…I think you summed it all up nicely.
I think addressing science-deniers is definitely a large issue because many deny this environmental research and science because they fear the political implications that would arise in response to these findings. We have made way too much progress as a nation in regards to environmental issues and nobody wants to see us erase this, except those that would profit from it or those whose power/influence is compromised by progress (ex: the fossil fuel industry). Hopefully, these actions by Trump’s administration will continue to raise outrage and activism will increase to fight for progress and avoid the detrimental consequences that will arise from many of this administration’s policies.
Jamie, so well written. Very proud of you.
It’s hard to imagine, and honestly a bit terrifying, that the Clean Water Act’s standards could be lessened. One would that people would learn from the mistakes made in the past in order to secure a brighter future. Lessening the Clean Water Act’s standards would mean reverting back to the way things were before it was established–that would accomplish nothing and all the progress made to restore water quality would be lost. So why is this notion even being considered? I would like to think that if the Clean Water Act needs to be addressed, it would be to create stricter standards to ensure that water quality is improving, not the other way around.
Elena, you are so right. Those that want to weaken the CWA have another agenda…to make money at the expense of clean water.
It is disappointing that the current administration does not take environmental concerns seriously. The amazing progress that has been made among environmental issues needs to be taken seriously, but instead the administration is starting to work towards reversing this progress. What the administration doesn’t understand is that without a healthy environment, they eventually won’t be able to continue to make money. If we don’t have clean water, clean air, and the ability to productively produce crops, all of society will suffer, even if the rich suffer less than the poor, their profits will still be lowered. Clean water and a healthy environment is so important to society and I am worried that it will take a massive wake up call for people like the current administration to understand the importance of this issue. Hopefully it will not be too little too late.
Spot on Paris!
When thinking about large environmental topics such as water quality, it is very easy to be discouraged and believe that we are not seeing the improvements we need. However, when looking at a longer time span, it is incredibly uplifting to see just how much has been done since the creation of the Clean Water Act. All point sources have been regulated to not be able to dump pollutants anywhere they want, and Best Management Practices have been implemented over a very large scale of the country. There are more organizations than ever that are pushing for the health of our planet and when those groups come together it is motivational. More companies need to be aware that sustainability can be profitable. Nonrenewable resources will not be around forever, so it makes sense for businesses that want to continue to make money to invest in these changes that will benefit both themselves and the earth. Although it seems as though we may be going backwards with our current governmental trend, we must try and stay optimistic about the future and that as long as we push for change we will continue to see positive outcomes.
Nicely written, Victoria.
Floaters in the 60s, today it’s coal ash. I do not believe Trump has accepted Jesus; only the money and votes from those he has duped into thinking he has. We have the technology to move forward with a cleaner environment but perhaps not the will. I recall a quote from Stephen Hawking after Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate accords:
“We have given our planet the disastrous gift of climate change … When we we have reached similar crises there has usually been somewhere else to colonize … But there is no new world, no utopia around the corner,” he said. “We are running out of space, and the only places to go to are other worlds.” _Prof Stephen Hawking
I hope it’s not too late.
Rock on, Charlie. So spot on.
I think it is such a shame that you watched this river deteriorate before your eyes over the years. This place was so sacred to you as a child and now you can’t even touch the water without being concerned. I live on the Long Island Sound and I personally never go in it. The water quality of the sound is so bad that on certain days they discourage anybody from going in it. You can see the garbage float by and the color is a murky brown at all times. It used to be much cleaner when I was growing up and it’s hard seeing all the science deniers in my area ignore the facts right in front of them. While actions such as the Clean Water Act and EPA have helped over the years, we need to be doing so much more, and I think addressing the deniers is the first step. There can’t be a real change without getting people on the same page.
One of my friends was telling me about how his father works in Washington for the EPA as a Clean Water Act enforcer. The problem is, these days he just sits at a desk and twiddles his thumbs because the higher ups don’t let him do his job. Scott Pruitt and the Trump Administration are a disaster for clean water and air and beyond that: climate change. What I fear is that we don’t have the time to ignore the science, we don’t have the time to wait for the administration to change. The first comment on this blog by Jim is ignorant in so many ways but especially ignorant in saying that it is not the job of the administration to save the environment. It is most DEFINITELY the job of the administration to enforce environmental regulations, to protect our earth for the future. It shouldn’t be America first, it should be mother nature first. Mother nature shows us that every day with the intensified storms, wildfires, and climate refugees.
The pure greed of most of today’s top shareholders is exuberant. The pressure they put on legislators and the money they throw at them to go against what should be an obvious movement to protect our water and our land is incredible. If we put all that money towards helping the less fortunate or restoring areas to their natural beauty the world would be a lot better place. We’ve made incredible progress towards restoring and protecting our water that it truly hurts to see one man and his staff so bent on destroying it all just to expand their already immense profit margins.
Alex, well said.
What is truly frustrating and sickening about the Trump Administration is how quick (and almost eager) it is to undo the progress made by the Clean Water Act and the various environmental laws that are currently in place. As stated in the “Celebrate Major Achievements” section of the article, the remedial efforts over the past few decades have had observable, positive outcomes, such as the absence dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay for example. The fact that this is the first time since the 1960’s that there are no longer dead zones in the estuary is explicit evidence that legislation geared towards environmental remediation and conservation is effective and beneficial in the long run. However, going off that same fact, it took over 50 years of establishing policies and regulations to restore the Bays health. 50 years. That alone serves as an example that our efforts to clean up specific sites or water sources is a timely process and doesn’t happen overnight. With the current legislation that has passed under the Trump Administration, the progression we’ve made towards a healthy and clean environment has become halted and back on a slow and steady decline.
What is also sad to think about is that the administration is not considerate towards the people who actually value the outdoors and interacting with nature. Your story about waterskiing as a child and coming upon pollution in the Roanoke River paints a perfect picture of how recreational activities and other outdoor pastimes are impaired when ignoring to protect the environment around us. I for one believe one of the most vital parts to having a happy childhood is to be outside; to not be stuck in front of a TV or computer during a bright, sunny day. But, if there are no attempts to make the outdoors a safe, and interactive environment, and leave it to deteriorate, you can’t really blame those who choose to stay inside.
Water is life! It’s disheartening that we have to fight off greedy corporations for protection of waters that we humans all depend on. However, the lesson on the Clean Water Act and its successes give me hope: utilizing science, effective partnerships, and incentives to promote positive change! Love it. I think the CWA is one clear example of the good that regulation can do. I can’t understand how some people feel that the government should not be responsible for matters like protecting our waters. Time and time again private business interests have prioritized profits over people. We should not and cannot surrender short-term gains (for a privileged few) for long-term ecological (and public) health issues suffering from polluted waters.
On another note, I enjoyed your point on the economic positives of restoring our waters. I think that the North end Greenway here in Harrisonburg is a great example of this: employing contractors while also serving as a source of community-building with the potential for volunteering to maintain buffers and educate people of all ages.
Well said, Quinton.
I couldn’t imagine going swimming or fishing on a lake or river and seeing human waste, just the thought repulses me. Just knowing that we have had some of the best water treatment in the world is a sigh of relief, but makes me think more about the water in other places of the world. It is a great thing to see native Brook Trout in Virginia streams and I couldn’t imagine them any other way. We need regulations for water quality just as much as we do for the air we breathe. Thank you to the Clean Water Act for improving water quality thus far and I hope its policy only strengthens from this point forward.
I hope that in the future, individuals in positions of high political power will acknowledge the importance of protecting our watersheds. Water is essential to the health and survival of humans and our planet. The pollution being carelessly released due to the lack of BMPs are threatening this planet’s biodiversity, which threatens our livelihood. Hopefully we will not move backward in history towards a time when swimming in sewage was acceptable. If the current administration does not enforce these regulations, hopefully farmers and other individuals will take it upon themselves to implement some BMPs such as rain gardens and riparian buffers, as mentioned above. If they do not do this for the health of the planet, hopefully they will do it for the health of their own farms, which thrive on clean water.
It’s truly frustrating to see the push back on all the amazing profess that has been made to ensure safe and clean drinking water for everyone in this country. Clean water is essential to life and is a basic human right that is being stripped away from marginalized communities by these greedy and dangerous actions taken by the trump administration. It seems like a constant uphill battle, a battle being fought on multiple fronts. Not only are people fighting to keep the achievements already made, but are also pursuing further better water quality by tackling non-point source pollution.
Some of the issues brought up in this article baffle me. We spent years trying to put policies into play that help us conserve and improve our freshwater resources and suddenly we begin to take steps in the wrong direction because of new administration. It makes no sense to allow pollution when every single person in our population relies on those freshwater resources. I can only hope that law makers will make sensible decisions in the future.
It’s a shame that the Trump administration seems to want to move things backwards for our country. Compromising the future of our water quality for a profit is truly greedy and ignorant. Allowing industrial facilities more leeway with pollution will lead us down a dark path. Water is the blood of the earth, and poisoning it will surely lead to disaster. Water scarcity will be a pressing issue in the years to come. It’s sad that the current administration doesn’t see the great importance of protecting our water resources. We need to make them see why it’s important.