Longtime Cleveland resident Steve Gove remembers when the Cuyahoga River symbolized shame – fetid, lifeless, notorious for catching fire when sparks from overhead wagons ignited the oil-coated surface.
“It was pretty dirty,” said the 73-year-old, a canoeist in his youth who sometimes braved the dirty stretch through the steel town.
Outrage over a fire in Cuyahoga in 1969 – the latest in a series of environmental disasters, including a 3 million gallon oil spill off Santa Barbara, California – is widely credited with inspiring the Clean Water Act from 1972.
As officials and community leaders prepared to celebrate the law’s 50th anniversary on Tuesday near the mouth of Lake Erie, the Cuyahoga is once again iconic. It represents progress toward restoring abused waterways — and challenges that remain after the law crackdown on industrial and municipal wastewater discharges and years of cleanup work.
A 1967 survey found no fish between Akron and Cleveland. Today, there are more than 70 species. The Cuyahoga is popular with boaters. Parks and restaurants line its banks.
“People come to my office regularly from other states and around the world wanting to see the Cuyahoga River,” said Kurt Princic, district manager for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
Yet the river remains on a U.S.-Canada list of “hot spots” in the Great Lakes region, plagued by erosion, historical contamination, stormwater runoff, and sewage overflows. Toxic algal blooms appear on Lake Erie in the summer, primarily caused by agricultural fertilizers. and manure.
The Clean Water Act set ambitious goals: to make the nation’s waters “walkable and swimmable” and restore their integrity. It gave the new US Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate polluters.
“We’ve made tremendous progress,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday. “By passing the Clean Water Act, Congress reinforced the importance of protecting our lakes, rivers, and streams for generations to come.”
Experts and activists agree that many waterways are now healthier, and the Biden administration’s 2021 infrastructure package includes $50 billion to upgrade drinking water and wastewater treatment systems, replacing lead pipes and purifying drinking water.
But the law’s goals have been “only halfway achieved,” said Oday Salim, director of the University of Michigan’s Environmental Law and Sustainability Clinic.
The crowning achievement of the measure, Salim said, is a program requiring polluting industries and sewage treatment schemes to obtain permits limiting their discharges into waters.
Still, the agency is a long way behind strengthening those requirements to reflect improvements in pollution control technologies, said Eric Schaeffer, former EPA chief enforcement officer and executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
One result, Schaeffer said, is that more than 50% of the miles of lakes, rivers and streams periodically assessed are still impaired.
Regan acknowledged that the EPA “still has work to do” but has an “aggressive program to reduce pollution.”
“We cannot ignore that the previous administration did nothing,” he said.
The Clean Water Act prompted many states to ban laundry detergents containing phosphorus. Some had called Lake Erie “dead” because soaps were fueling algae blooms that were killing fish.
Bans caused a turnaround in the 1980s. Erie was once again blue instead of brown.
Yet the algal bloom was back within decades — this time from a problem the Clean Water Act had prevented.
Its emission limits and permit requirements apply to waste discharged into waters from identifiable sources, such as factories. But it does not regulate runoff pollution from indirect sources: fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural fields and lawns; oil and toxic chemicals from city streets and parking lots.
This runoff pollution is now the leading cause of degradation of waterways in the United States.
Environmentalists who have long argued that the law allows regulation of pollution from large livestock operations sued the EPA this month, demanding a tougher approach. But federal and state agencies rely primarily on voluntary programs that provide financial assistance to farms for using practices such as cover crops that hold soil during off-seasons. Farmers’ groups resist making them compulsory.
Stan Meiburg, director of the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest University and former deputy administrator of the EPA, favors farms bearing the costs of environmental damage they do. cause if a viable system could be found.
But, he added, “I find it unlikely that any legislation will impose large-scale restrictions on how farmers conduct their business anytime soon.”
A case argued this month in the U.S. Supreme Court involved one of the longest-running debates over the Clean Water Act: What waters does it legally protect?
Lakes, rivers and streams are covered, as are adjacent wetlands. But 40 years of legal battles and regulatory rewrites have left the status of wetlands not directly connected to a larger body of water – and seasonal waterways – in limbo.
“We want to preserve and protect our ability and statutory authority to regulate in this area,” said EPA’s Regan, describing wetlands as crucial for filtering pollutants, storing floodwaters and providing habitat.
His agency is rewriting the rules for those waters, even as the Supreme Court prepares to deliver its own interpretation of the case of an Idaho couple who want to build a house on land with swampy areas near a lake.
“What’s at stake here is at least half of this country’s waterways,” said Jon Devine of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The National Association of Home Builders, which supports the Idaho couple’s challenge of an EPA order to stop work on their home, says states can better monitor isolated wetlands and ephemeral streams than the EPA.
“The federal government doesn’t have the bandwidth to regulate every tiny wetland away from anything that would be considered navigable,” said Tom Ward, the group’s vice president for legal defense.
Environmental justice is a big issue these days.
But for Crystal MC Davis, it became more real after the Cuyahoga fire in 1969, when Carl Stokes, Cleveland’s first black mayor, filed a lawsuit with the state for help cleaning up the river. .
“The revival of the Cuyahoga River is personal to us,” said Davis, who is black and vice president of the Great Lakes Alliance. “That’s why we have to stop and celebrate, even though there is still room for improvement.”
Follow John Flesher on Twitter: @JohnFlesher.
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