Facing Up to Freshwater Pollution

The state of freshwater in the United States resembles A Tale of Two Cities. It is the best of times in that, in the latter portion of the 20th century, we reversed the general disregard for water bodies. Our nation rallied in the face of flammable rivers, water bodies used as dumps for industrial waste and municipal sewage, and wetland losses of approximately 450,000 acres per year. Waterways are significantly healthier today because a previous generation of leaders had the vision and commitment to insist upon it. But it is the worst of times in that progress today has essentially plateaued far short of the national goal, stated in the very first section of the 1974 Clean Water Act, of having fishable and swimmable waters. The law's goal of eliminating pollution discharges has, moreover, been reduced to a fantasy of a bygone era.

There are numerous, ominous signs of complacency. The U.S. continues to rely upon technologies developed decades ago, or, in the case of wastewater treatment, almost 100 years ago. We have let our sewer systems fall into disrepair, allowing raw and partially treated sewage to flow into waterways because it never reaches the plant for treatment. At our current rate of investment, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has projected that sewage pollution will be as high in 2025 as it was in 1968, before the passage of the Clean Water Act.

Under the guise of responding to a pair of Supreme Court decisions, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers no longer require permits for many discharges that pollute or destroy wetlands or headwater streams. Federal clean-water policy historically has done a poor job of protecting against pollution from storm water and from agriculture. And we have barely begun to come to terms with the droughts and flooding, the harm to cold-water fisheries, and the threats to drinking-water supplies that global warming will bring.

In short, the country finds itself at a turning point as momentous as it faced in the 1970s when the clean-water law was enacted. It would be a mistake to continue on the current path, which threatens to lead to the reversal of much of the progress of the last several decades. The nation must recommit to implement the policies that served us well and turned the country's waters around. It must also employ new techniques that prevent pollution. Just as we face an urgent need to cope with the parallel problems of increasing drinking water scarcity and overconsumption, we must redouble our efforts to control water pollution. What follows is a set of recommendations to do so.

Recommitting to Progress

One particularly acute problem today is that the agencies responsible for implementing the Clean Water Act have refused to apply the law to all the water bodies that they have the authority to protect. Two recent Supreme Court decisions have raised questions about the degree to which certain kinds of water bodies are included in the law's programs regulating industrial pollution, oil spills, and the destruction of waterways. These decisions did not, however, strike down the existing, broadly protective rules. Rather than safeguard the waters unaffected by the Court's decision, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have made things worse by refusing (or making it harder) to protect certain kinds of water bodies -- particularly so-called "isolated" waters and headwater and seasonal tributary streams. This problem is as fundamental as they come. We cannot effectively protect lakes, rivers, and coastal waters if we do not protect the waters that flow into them.

As the universe of water bodies being protected has shrunk, so too has federal funding for clean-water infrastructure needs. The gap between the amount of federal funding and the estimated wastewater needs has been estimated at approximately $20 billion annually. We should close the funding gap, identify a dedicated source of funding for clean-water infrastructure as we have for highways and other U.S. infrastructure needs, and start spending smarter on technologies that are more effective and more sustainable.

Putting the environmental cop back on the beat is also crucial. The Government Accountability Office found that the EPA's total budget for enforcement fell 5 percent from 1997 to 2006, with real funding for enforcement in its regional offices declining by 8 percent and similar cuts in regional enforcement staff.

Finally, the government ought to get out of the game of making special rules for various industries. The Bush administration has bent over backward to make it easier for coal-mining operations to dispose of their waste in mountain streams and to authorize the complete destruction of those headwaters. The present EPA, likewise, has fought to exempt operations that pump water from one water body to another -- no matter how polluted or how pristine the receiving water -- from the usual obligation to have a discharge permit. Other examples abound.

Urban and rural fixes

Storm water runoff from development is one of the largest and fastest growing sources of water pollution in the U.S. As previously undeveloped land is paved over and built upon, the amount of storm water running off roofs, streets, and other impervious surfaces increases, carrying pollutants that can degrade the quality of local and regional water bodies. The increased velocity and volume of runoff cause dramatic changes in hydrology and water quality that result in a variety of problems. These include increased flooding, stream channel degradation, habitat loss, changes in water temperature, contamination of water resources, and increased erosion and sedimentation. These changes affect ecosystem functions, biological diversity, public health, recreation, economic activity, and general community well-being. In short, nature's own ability to maintain a water balance is lost to a changing landscape and new impervious surfaces.

The challenge of reducing storm water pollution is finding an effective method of reducing the amount created in urban environments. Current methods of managing storm water largely fail to address the underlying problem of imperviousness. Storm water collected in separate systems typically is not treated before being discharged; even when it is treated, the treatment fails to address the scouring, erosion, and other physical impacts of storm water discharges. Fortunately, solutions that capture, retain, filter, and sometimes also harvest storm water for reuse on site -- collectively called "green infrastructure" -- are currently employed in a number of forward-thinking communities.

The EPA is poised to miss an opportunity to require developers to utilize these environmentally and economically preferable methods to reduce storm water pollution. Last year, following a federal court order, the EPA undertook setting standards for controlling storm water from development based on the best technologies available. The Bush administration found itself in an unusual position in this rulemaking where the best technologies, "green infrastructure" approaches, also happen to save developers, municipalities, and property owners money, according to the EPA's own studies. Despite the obvious societal benefits to issuing such a rule, the administration has instead now decided to expedite finalizing, in effect, a "non-rule," one that blesses the status quo.

Similarly, pollution washed from agricultural fields may not be amenable to traditional pollution-control approaches, which have often relied on the use of end-of-pipe technology to remove contaminants. Nor can agricultural runoff be ignored; in 2002, agriculture was the leading cause of impaired rivers and the second-leading cause of impaired lakes. Here again, natural processes can be extremely important. One way of reducing the amount of nutrient pollution from fertilized fields is by preserving wetlands that can intercept runoff and convert the nutrients it contains. So policies that enhance wetland protection in agricultural watersheds make sense, and current programs should be expanded.

These essential changes will not come easily. Until we fully implement the conventional pollution-control techniques that served the nation so well, and marry them with integrated water-management approaches that can significantly lessen the pollution burden on our waters, we can expect conditions to continue to worsen. There is still some life, we hope, in the Clean Water Act's fundamental idea -- polluting the water is not a right and should only be allowed after the best technologies are applied to minimize the contamination of our precious water resources. Honoring that goal means recommitting to historic protections, promoting technology and techniques that meet emerging challenges, and ending special breaks for polluting industries.