The 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act is something to celebrate, but the work is not done.
It’s hard to imagine too many people with more passion and commitment to our nation’s waterways than Todd Ambs.
I was reminded of that in a recent email from him about the Clean Water Act. Ambs lives in Madison while serving as president of the national river advocacy group, River Network.
Along with information about an upcoming event celebrating the act’s 40th anniversary, Ambs provided a list of 40 items — 20 thoughts on the Clean Water Act today and 20 wishes for when it reaches 80.
It all reminded me of how far we have come since the days before the Clean Water Act, and how far we have yet to travel. A lot of people have stories about those pre-act days. Here’s one: I was a school kid growing up in Green Bay. One of my summertime memories was putting a pillow over my head at night to block the odors from the Fox River, polluted by industrial, municipal and agricultural wastes. Our home was about a mile downwind from the Fox, which had become one of the dirtiest rivers in America. The Fox still has some problems today, but thanks to the Clean Water Act it doesn’t stink to high heaven, and the cleaner river has become a major asset for my old hometown, lined with marinas, restaurants and other attractions.
As with so many resuscitated rivers, the Fox has become a money-maker and job creator for the communities along it. Recognizing that, one of Ambs’ wishes for the next 40 years is: “No elected official would ever think of suggesting that environmental regulations cost jobs.” Amen.
That doesn’t even count savings on human health and other benefits. About that, Ambs says: “Regulations to ensure that we have the most basic of human needs, clean water, produce $40 in health and environmental benefits for every dollar of compliance costs.”
The Clean Water Act makes this possible, yet some extremists would weaken or eliminate it, destroy the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the act’s enforcement, and otherwise turn back the clock based on false claims that this would somehow help our economy. Let's hope most Americans won’t let that happen.
Ambs and others point out that, if anything, we’ve only begun cleaning up our waters, and in some cases, things have gotten worse. Wisconsin has more than 700 waterways defined as impaired for fish and aquatic life. Mercury, phosphorous and suspended solids are among the major pollutants.
Nationally, an estimated 35 percent of U.S. waters are still unfit for fishing or swimming in 2012 — despite the law’s 1985 target of zero. The law does little to control nonpoint sources of pollution like urban storm water and farm runoff.
Meanwhile, court rulings generated by those who like pollution have raised doubts about which waterways are protected. About that, Ambs says: “The definition of the waters of the United States covered by the Clean Water Act must be broad and inclusive to ensure we have clean water in all parts of the natural hydrologic cycle. It is not called the Partially Clean Water Act.”
He also notes the federal government provided much of the funding for constructing first-generation wastewater treatment facilities in the 1970s but it’s unlikely to provide much of the billions needed to reconstruct that infrastructure now. So there are no guarantees for the future unless an educated and enlightened public demands clean water. That’s the focus of Ambs’ 20 wishes for the year 2052. I hope they are circulated widely.
October 11, 2012
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Bill Berry is a FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Stevens Point and writes columns for the Capital Times and other publications.