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Is The Clean Water Act Really Keeping Northwest Waterways Clean?

Forty years after its passage, has the Clean Water Act done everything it set out to do? Help us investigate! Send us your thoughts.

Forty years after its passage, has the Clean Water Act done everything it set out to do? Help us investigate! Send us your thoughts.

By Robert McClure/InvestigateWest

It’s remarkable to go back and take a look at what Congress had in mind when it passed the Clean Water Act. We’ll just quote:

“It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985…

It is the national goal that the discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts be prohibited…

It is the national policy that programs for the control of non-point sources of pollution be developed and implemented in an expeditious manner…”

Wow. Why hasn’t that happened by now? That’s the subject of the just-launched collaboration between InvestigateWest, EarthFix and Ecotrope on the occasion of the 40th birthday of the bedrock environmental statute.

When Congress passed the Clean Water Act, it turns out, lawmakers really wanted to end water pollution over the course of the next 13 years. It sounds particularly ambitious from the perspective of 40 years later, given that we know what really got set up was a system to permit pollution. How could that happen? Well, theoretically all polluters would be issued permits – a set of rules under which to operate – that would progressively reduce the amount of gunk they dumped into waterways.

It didn’t always work out that way, though.

Clean Water Act Comebacks

There’s no arguing that the Clean Water Act, in some ways, did a great job of reducing water pollution. Nationally, the classic before-and-after story is Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River. It had so many flammable wastes in it in the late 1960s that it famously caught on fire — more than once, actually. And it was far from the only industrial river to do so. Today it’s a prized urban amenity, with restaurants along its banks and kayakers breezing along on their way to Lake Erie.

Similar comeback stories can be told in our region about Oregon’s Willamette, Idaho’s Boise and Washington’s Spokane and Duwamish rivers, among others.  They were essentially open-air industrial sewers. For example, a tributary of the Boise once ran red with bloody waste from a nearby meat-packing plant, and “health regulators also noted a great deal of rat activity along the banks,” as Aaron Kunz reported last year for EarthFix.

Today all those rivers’ water quality is far, far better. (Even so, decades of unfettered pollution later led to the Willamette and the Duwamish being declared Superfund sites.) There is no question that the Clean Water Act has made a major difference here and across the country.

Which Waterways Are Still Polluted?

But polluters also are continuing to dump into those rivers, with government permission. The drive to entirely solve the water pollution problem stalled somewhere along the way. How did that happen? We’ll be exploring that along with a host of other questions.

Consider that nationwide, even four decades after the law’s passage, about one-third of the lakes, rivers, streams and bays are not meeting the goals of the Clean Water Act.

Oversimplified only slightly, those goals  were to  “make waterways fishable and swimmable.” And that’s just the figure for the waterways where we have data; the EarthFix-InvestigateWest-Ecotrope team is finding out there is a surprisingly small amount of actual scientific monitoring of water quality. For many water bodies, we really don’t know how clean they are.

What We’re Doing About It

We’re motivated to take this on in part because of polling done for EarthFix last year by Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall Surveyors asked residents of Oregon, Washington and Idaho what they thought was the most pressing environmental problem in the region. The answer they were most likely to give?  Water quality protection. Eighty-six percent of Northwesterners described themselves as somewhat or very concerned about water quality protection.

86% of Northwesterners described themselves as somewhat or very concerned about water quality protection.

I’m personally interested because I’ve been covering the Clean Water Act for more than half the statute’s life. I began reporting about it while covering the sugar industry’s pollution of the Florida Everglades in the late 1980s, and later it was central to the reporting projects I spearheaded that helped spur a redoubled effort to rescue Puget Sound.

We’re going to look at how the Clean Water Act is being enforced in the Northwest. We’re out to show what could be done better, while also making sure to explore solutions to the remaining pollution problems our region faces. We’re interested in the role of agriculture and forestry in water pollution, in the effects of the many new chemicals that have come onto the market since the law was passed in 1972, in the water-pollution problems the statute doesn’t address (or doesn’t address well) and generally in the state of efforts in the Northwest to, if not end water pollution, at least reduce it to levels that don’t violate the law.

Tell Us What You Think

As collaborator and Ecotrope host Cassandra Profita pointed out in her inaugural post, we’re eager to hear from you. Please get in touch with us about any aspect of the Clean Water Act as we seek to build community around these issues. Here are some of the questions we’re interested in, as posed last week by Cassandra:

  •  Are there places in the Northwest where the law has failed to keep rivers clean enough for people to eat the resident fish?
  • Is the law is being enforced? Are illegal polluters in the Northwest being caught and punished as the law requires?
  • Has the law failed to control non-point sources of pollution such as agricultural run-off and stormwater?
  • Should the law be regulating more pollutants – such as the chemicals and hormones that we’re flushing down the toilet?

And, as I said, feel free to point out other topics and angles related to the Clean Water Act that we should be asking about as we seek to critique the historic law and tell Northwesterners how it’s working here in our region. Email me ( or any member of the team. We look forward to hearing from you.

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