Anybody here remember what American rivers were like a half-century ago?
Suffice it to say, some were so polluted they caught on fire. Others were open sewers. Most were dead. Too toxic for fish, unsafe for swimming.
Then came the Clean Water Act, passed 50 years ago this fall.
Although critics may fuss about the regulatory side of the law, the simple truth is that it and other measures were much more carrot than stick, providing grants and other programs to pay for sewer systems across America, for example.
In the 50 years since the act passed, the federal government invested over $100 billion in construction of sewage treatment plants.
For a river-rich, water-wealthy region such as ours, the act has been a godsend.
Missouri wouldn’t have its multibillion-dollar outdoor or tourism industries without it. Or a Table Rock Lake that was of any recreational value. Without it, most places wouldn’t even have safe drinking water.
“I believe that the (Clean Water Act) is far and away the most significant and promising piece of environmental legislation ever enacted by the Congress,” said former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker — a Republican who later served as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff.
Still, we have a long way to go.
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Earlier this year, two University of Missouri researchers, attorney Robin Rotman and engineer Kathleen Trauth, concluded that for all the good it has done, all the value it has added, it is not enough.
They cite the National Water Quality Inventory, which found that 70% of lakes, reservoirs and ponds and 55% of rivers and streams in the U.S. are impaired by pollution.
A half-century ago, the focus was on pollution from specific sites that would be addressed — factories, for example, and wastewater treatment plants. Today, and especially in the Midwest, nonpoint pollution, such as runoff across a parking lot or through a pasture or off of yards, is “the biggest threat” to water quality today.
Fertilizers and insecticides from the Mississippi River, for example, have helped turn the Gulf of Mexico into a hypoxic zone, better understood as a dead area.
Prozac, birth control pills, PFAs and countless other chemicals that are part of our lifestyle are still a threat to our lakes, rivers, wetlands and coastal areas, drinking water, wildlife … and, of course, our health.
In other words, we can celebrate how far we’ve come, while recognizing we have a long way to go. Nearly every river in Southwest Missouri is on the state’s list of impaired waters because of heavy metals, E. coli, fertilizers, insecticides and more.
We call on government leaders at all levels to use this milestone to double down on the Clean Water Act, to take further steps to make sure our children are left a safer, cleaner world.
— The Joplin (Missouri) Globe