As much as it’s taken for granted today, clean water used to be the quintessential pipe dream.
In the 1960s, sewage and industrial waste were poisoning the nation’s waterways. Die-offs cost the Chesapeake Bay fishing industry millions each year, and bacteria levels in the Hudson River were 170 times higher than what was deemed safe.
In 1969, the abysmal conditions reached a tipping point when the sludge-thick, chemical-laced Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire.
The sight of an American river burning galvanized the public.
Three years later, on Oct. 18, 1972, Congress overrode a veto from then-President Richard Nixon to pass the Clean Water Act. This landmark legislation curtailed pollutant discharge in an effort to “restore and maintain … the Nation’s waters.” By 1983, the Act declared, all American waterways should be made safe for aquatic life and recreational use.
Generations of Americans now have grown up using waterways under the protection of these regulations. Almost a half-century later, the Act remains one of the United States’ most important pieces of environmental legislation, says Aquarium Vice President of Conservation Science and Education Dr. Anna George.
“The Clean Water Act is essential for continuing to maintain and improve our water quality,” she says. “I can’t stress enough how important this legislation is for not only giving Americans access to safe drinking water, but also making sure our rivers and streams are healthy for fun activities like fishing and swimming.”
Nevertheless, the legacy of the Clean Water Act is water that is cleaner, not “clean.” Nonpoint source pollution from fertilizers, silt and urban runoff continue to affect water quality in many rivers, lakes and streams.
Fig. 2 The Tennessee River
Through numerous programs, the Aquarium is actively combating this rogue’s gallery of pollutants to protect aquatic life and in pursuit of making “swimmable, drinkable, fishable” water a reality in the Southeast.
Sarah Sweat is a geographic information systems analyst at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and the local coordinator for Georgia Adopt-A-Stream. Through Adopt-A-Stream, Sweat and her volunteers monitor water quality throughout the Tennessee River watershed in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
“I want to see more citizens getting involved in knowing what is in their backyards and learning more about the watershed we live in,” Sweat says. “It is important to protect water, not only for aquatic life but to ensure a better life for humans. Getting involved not only helps wildlife but your community.”
The Aquarium also participates in the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, a multi-institution cooperative working to raise awareness about and reduce the threat of water-born plastic pollution. Of particular concern are microplastics, fragments smaller than 5 millimeters in length created by the steady deterioration of plastic waste. Every year, millions of tons of this particulate enter the oceans and bodies of freshwater, where they are consumed by animals and — eventually — humans who consume contaminated seafood.
Fig. 3 The Tennessee Aquarium with the Tennessee River in the background
In August, the Aquarium supported German scientist and marathon open water athlete Dr. Andreas Fath as he embarked on TenneSwim, an unprecedented project to swim the 652-mile length of the Tennessee River. Navigating from Knoxville, Tenn., to Paducah, Ky., Fath and his team conducted daily water quality tests checking for microplastics and substances such as pesticides, heavy metals and chemical traces from medications and household cleaning products.
TenneSwim follows three years after Fath swam and tested Germany’s Rhine River, which is of similar volume and length to the Tennessee River.
The results of TenneSwim won’t be available until later this year, but these kinds of projects draw attention to the unexpected ways human behavior impact water quality, Fath says.
“Water pollution is not only a result of the industrial use of water but also a result of unconscious consumer behavior,” he says. “This project and the outcome will make people aware of their influence. Small changes in their behavior will have a big positive effect on water quality.”
Whether it’s limiting the impact of plastic waste on aquatic wildlife or preventing a return to the days when rivers could burn, humans and animals alike have a shared stake in the pursuit of truly “clean” water, George says.
“I hope that, when people see programs like the TenneSwim, we remember not to backstroke,” she says. “Instead, let’s all keep pushing forward so that, just as our parents and grandparents gave us the Clean Water Act to protect our beautiful backyard, we leave our children and grandchildren even healthier waters to enjoy.”
Fig. 4 Dr. Andreas Fath
Fig. 5 Dr. Andreas Fath swimming
Fig. 6 The TenneSwim Team
How you can help
Water covers most of the earth’s surface, but only about 2.5 percent of it is fresh water. Of that, less than 1 percent is easily accessible for human use. That makes every drop — and every individual action that could impact a waterway — critically important. Here are five ways you can safeguard the rivers, lakes and streams near you:
- Don’t Flush Your Meds — Any pharmaceuticals you flush down the toilet or pour down the sink inevitably end up in a body of water. As part of its National Take-Back Initiative, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has authorized thousands of collectors who can safely dispose of unused medication for you. Find a collector near you by using the search tool at www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/takeback/ or calling 1-800-882-9539.
- Skip the straw — Plastic is the most prevalent type of debris in aquatic environments, and single-use plastics, such as drinking straws, are a major source of this pollution. Over time, these items break down but don’t fully biodegrade, creating fragments (microplastics) that can be consumed by animals, impacting their ability to feed as well as contaminating the seafood people enjoy. Instead of a plastic straw, use an alternative, reusable sipping device made from paper, metal, glass or even bamboo.
- Fertilize with Care — Using too much fertilizer can affect your plants’ ability to absorb water and can contaminate nearby streams when the excess is carried away by stormwater run-off. To prevent this, follow the label instructions carefully to mix the fertilizer accurately and only use it during the appropriate time of year.
- Don’t Go Down the Drain — Storm drains are like superhighways that transport chemicals, unfiltered and untreated, into local waterways. Do a web search to find local hazardous waste disposal sites near you rather than risk a fine or damage to a nearby stream.
- Jump In! — Stricter government regulations have made many waterways safe for human recreation, but that wasn’t always the case. You can now fish, swim, paddle or otherwise enjoy many of the rivers, lakes and streams near you because of the clean water regulations of the past 45 years. By making use of these waterways, you’ll show legislators that communities value the cleaner water these laws made possible.
What it changed?
How the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1927 (aka the Clean Water Act) amended the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948:
- Established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States.
Gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry.
- Maintained existing requirements to set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters.
- Made it unlawful for any person to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained under its provisions.
- Funded the construction of sewage treatment plants under the construction grants program.
- Recognized the need for planning to address the critical problems posed by nonpoint source pollution.