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Celebrating 50 Years of the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act doesn’t specifically target non-point pollution, such as algal blooms triggered by agricultural and other runoff. 

The Clean Water Act doesn’t specifically target non-point pollution, such as algal blooms triggered by agricultural and other runoff. 

Back when Congress could actually agree and pass sound legislation, the Clean Water Act became law with the goal of cleaning up the nation’s navigable waterways. Obviously, the boating industry has been a beneficiary.

As the CWA marks its 50th anniversary, consider how the Environmental Protection Agency describes the act’s mission: “The objective of the act is the restoration and maintenance of the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the country’s water.”

One of the goals was to achieve water quality that is “fishable and swimmable by the mid-1980s.” While that date has long passed, great progress has been made. Still, the goal remains, and efforts to attain it continue.

Among of the great CWA achievements was the creation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, which requires a permit that contains limits on what can be discharged, monitoring and reporting requirements, and other provisions to ensure that the discharge does not hurt water quality or people's health. It was vetoed by President Nixon but was overridden by Congress with strong bipartisan support. Regulators are able control toxic discharges from single-point sources, such as a pipe or drainage ditch that empties into a stream or body of water.

Having lived and boated on Lake Erie for 40 years, I recall Cleveland’s heavily polluted Cuyahoga River catching fire June 22, 1969. It defined the city’s reputation for many years and became a symbol for America’s polluted waterways. The burning river and other notable environmental events focused attention on the need to protect and restore our waterways, and helped galvanize the modern environmental movement. Indeed, many maintain this triggered the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

The Cuyahoga never burned again; it became a boating hub with the development of dockside restaurants, marinas, condos, parks and more. We fondly remember cruising to the Cuyahoga for everything from dinner to boat parades, all the result of the CWA.

The CWA also provided funding for wastewater treatment, and great improvements have been realized, though in many areas stormwater can overwhelm the systems and allow untreated flows to enter waterways.

And there is still more to do.

A major water quality issue that the CWA doesn’t completely address is controlling pollution from non-point sources, such as runoff from farms or large paved areas. From the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, the growth of harmful algal blooms is largely attributed to excess phosphorus that washes off farmlands and into streams, rivers and lakes.

Non-point pollution is the trigger for blooms in Lake Erie each summer. They are mainly attributable to excess phosphorus from farms and confined animal operations that enters the Maumee River, which flows into Erie.

Algal blooms can trigger a hypoxic, or “dead,” zone in a lake. The central basin of Lake Erie develops an oxygen-starved, phosphorus-infused dead zone as large as 3,000 square miles from July to October.

Mobile organisms leave the dead zone, while others die without adequate oxygen. Fish are forced to seek areas that are more habitable. The impacts on fish populations and the consequences for commercial and recreational fishing economies are uncertain.

The Gulf of Mexico has a dead zone that has reached 8,000 square miles at times. As an industry that relies on clean water and good fishing, dealing with the causes of algal blooms is crucial.

It won’t be easy. In these polarized political times, it’s unlikely there will be any immediate changes to the regulations emanating from the CWA, which hasn’t been amended since 1987. Although the Marine Industry Association of Southwest Florida and Tampa Bay has lobbied for more meaningful regulations to reduce the flow of fertilizers from sugar plantations in central Florida, taking on “big sugar” is a formidable task.

Moreover, disagreement and legal challenges by landowners have ensued with regard to federal regulators’ attempts to define “navigable waters” and propose new but questionable regulatory actions.

There’s no question that recognizing the CWA’s 50 years of progress is worthy of celebration, but there is much work to be done to move the needle forward.

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