Why the Clean Water Act Means So Much

Prince Shakur  /  7 Min Read  /  Activism

Boats going through an algae bloom contamination on Lake Erie, Ohio. After the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972, Lake Erie’s yearly toxic algae problem subsided. In recent years, due to the effects of climate change and increased human activity, algae bloom contamination has intensified. Even tighter protection within the Clean Water Act is needed to limit the sources of pollution that lead to this type of contamination. Photo: Peter Essick / Aurora Photos / Alamy

My family arrived in Ohio from Jamaica in the mid-1970s, during a time of environmental turmoil. The previous decade had brought to light significant issues around the treatment of land and water in the United States. The Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, caught fire in 1969 due to excessive oil coating its surface. Many presumed the lake was dead.

It is this Lake Erie, littered with dead fish, that my mother and her siblings saw when they first arrived in the United States. My mother always cautioned my brother and me from swimming at Edgewater Park when we were children. Half joking and half serious, she’d say to us while smiling at our laughter, “You go into that water and you come out with another arm!”

Lake Erie is part of a network  of waterways, connected through the Erie Canal to other Great Lakes and the Hudson River. Since my family’s arrival, it’s had several environmental problems, including an algae bloom contamination in 2014 that resulted in  half a million Toledo residents going days without drinkable water. Today, due in part to local residents, groups like the Waterkeeper Alliance and protection from environmental statutes like the Clean Water Act, Lake Erie and other waters have benefitted from a regulatory shield against polluters.

Since 2016, however, a variety of rollbacks of environmental policies and regulations by the Trump administration have put both land and water at risk again. One of the most recent and notable is a rollback of an Obama-era regulation to the Clean Water Act that made clear the authority and responsibility of the federal government to limit pollution in smaller bodies of water. The new proposed changes to this rule could seriously jeopardize, if not eliminate, federal protections for ephemeral streams, which appear after rainfall, and many important wetlands that are connected to our streams, rivers and lakes.

Research done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2015 shows that the health of ephemeral streams and wetlands has a “significant impact on downstream water bodies, including our nation’s largest waterways.” And damage to one body of water or ecosystem can drastically affect another. Pollution in wetlands and waterways can affect everything else downstream. Clean-water advocates are concerned this upcoming rollback would decimate protections for waters nationwide and set environmental protection back decades.

The problems of the Lake Erie my parents witnessed on their arrival were not unique to the Northeast. During that time, two-thirds of America’s waterways were unsafe for swimming and drinking while the Great Lakes were in a state of  environmental ruin. Growing concern fueled a movement that led to the creation in 1972 of the Clean Water Act and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. In the past 47 years, the Act has been used by communities and grassroots groups alike to combat ongoing environmental damage and pollution all around the United States. And it’s worked.

Why the Clean Water Act Means So Much

Water is a human right. On February 19th, 2016, Reverend Jesse Jackson led more than 500 people past the abandoned General Motors plants and to the Flint Water tower in protest of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Photo: Zack Canepari

Gordon Rogers, executive director of Flint Riverkeeper Alliance (which works to protect Flint  River and its tributaries) is one of many advocates who used the Clean Water Act to establish a lawsuit with local property owners against a TenCate Protectice Fabrics facility in Molena, Georgia. The lawsuit accused the company of unlawfully discharging polluted industrial wastewater into tributaries (streams or rivers that flow into a larger stream, river or lake) of the Flint River.

Rogers says some Molena residents had been uneasy about the textile facility since it arrived in the community 25 years ago, because of its proximity to people’s homes. In 2014, after the Georgia Environmental Protection Division ignored pleas from Flint Riverkeeper for stricter controls on TenCate’s waste, the group decided to do assessments of their own. The group then used the Clean Water Act in court to get the state of Georgia to do its job.

Many environmental lawsuits revolve around forcing corporations to change their habits or to get government institutions, like the EPA, to actually do their job. This happened in March 2019 in Indiana when a coalition of organizations filed an intention to sue the EPA for failing to significantly remedy pollution in local waterways mentioned in the EPA’s impaired water list.

The usage of the Clean Water Act to challenge corporations and government institutions has led to many successes. After years of legal battles, Sierra Club and a coalition of environmental groups won a lawsuit in 2017 against BNSF Railways Company for operating open-top coal and petcoke (a by-product of oil extraction) train cars that discharged 30 to 120 tons of coal dust per 120-car train, which spread pollutants like mercury and arsenic into the Columbia River. And after months of pressure in 2015 from people concerned for the health of the Great Lakes, Ohio governor John Kasich agreed to reduce the amount of runoff pollution in Lake Erie 40 percent by 2025. On November 20, 2018, Flint Riverkeeper and Tencate Protective Fabrics reached a settlement that included the company paying $250,000 toward improved water monitoring and implementing more frequent water sampling.

If the proposed changes to the Clean Water Act were to be implemented, more than one-third of Americans could see their drinking water imperiled. According to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group, some 117 million people get at least some of their drinking water from small streams. In Georgia, most people get their water from surface water, which accounts for 7.7 million acres of wetlands. Without strict protection from pollution, damage to these bodies of water could impact people’s access to safe, clean water. And 75 endangered species, from steelhead trout to California tiger salamanders, could find themselves on an accelerated path to extinction.

A 2018 report by Professor Yolanda McDonald from Vanderbilt University and Professor Nicole Jones from University of Missouri analyzed water violations from 2011 to 2015. They found that communities with low income or ones that are minority-dominated are more affected by water violations than other populations and noted how the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a prime example of when government missteps lead to using corrosive water sources, failing to respond to public health concerns. Furthermore, problems within communities that already have water insecurity—such as residents of Lubbock County in Texas that showered and drank with water contaminated by nearby military bases—would be further exacerbated.

Poor, marginalized communities, like my neighborhood and beyond, will be some of the hardest hit. A recent EPA report shows communities of color will be disproportionately impacted by climate change, whether that impact be health issues as a result of air pollution from nearby toxic factories or increased risk of flooding for those who live near bodies of poisoned water. Poor communities of color are often locked out of adequate employment or the healthcare needed to mitigate the consequences of lacking environmental regulation, being literally left to die or to fend for themselves.

In February 2019, voters in my home state of Ohio passed groundbreaking legislation that gives Lake Erie legal rights, meaning people can sue the state or corporations on behalf of the lake when it’s being polluted. Its sparkling appearance today is a far cry from the various chapters of dilapidation its experienced since 1894.

When enacted properly, the Clean Water Act allows more complex waterways to rejuvenate over time, whether that time allows enough healing time for the fish population to detoxify or for grassroots groups to step in to do the necessary cleanup that state agencies are often slow to do. For Pat Parenteau, professor of Law and senior counsel in the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School, the rollbacks to the regulations in the Clean Water Act have countless consequences.

“You have to have a national law,” he says. “You have to have uniform standards that make sure wherever the pollutants are discharged, they are subject to the same kind of controls. That’s why we’ve had the federal Clean Water Act on the books since 1972, because if you leave these problems to the individual states, no one state has the authority to control all the different sources of pollution. That’s what’s so critical about the scope of the Clean Water Act.”

For a poor, black boy raised in Cleveland, Parenteau’s perspective is chilling. My family resorted to teaching my brother and me how to swim at city pools instead of Lake Erie while we were growing up. I didn’t appreciate the beauty it could have on sparkling summer days until my friends and I started going there together after I started college. On a recent trip to Lake Erie, my mother and I brought my niece there so that she could learn to swim. As my mother and niece splashed around in the water, I smiled, grateful for the work done by citizens and environmental advocates alike to improve the health of Lake Erie.

Why the Clean Water Act Means So Much

The author, at 18, scoping Lake Erie. Photo courtesy of Prince Shakur

I shivered as I moved from the warm air into the cold water. My niece shrieked as I picked her up by the arms and swung her around. Later as I buckled my niece into her car seat, my mother asked if she’d had fun. My niece nodded and asked when we could come again. My mother glanced at me in the rearview mirror as she answered, “Whenever we want. This can be our new, special place.”

Save the Clean Water Act

The Environmental Protection Agency is dismantling the Clean Water Act piece by piece. Streams, wetlands and other smaller bodies of water across the US are losing protections from pollution. Tell the EPA to stand up for a strong Clean Water Act.

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