Let’s not go back to the bad ol’ days for our waterways

Let’s not go back to the bad ol’ days for our waterways
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While President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE has promised to Make America Great Again, he certainly couldn’t have meant a return to the way our nation treated its waterways and wetlands five decades ago. And yet, it appears that’s just what the administration aims to do.

In the 1960s, scientists looked at the sewage and agricultural chemicals running into Lake Erie and predicted it soon would be biologically dead. Contamination in Florida killed 26 million fish in Lake Thonotosassa. Each year 450,000 acres of wetlands were destroyed. Near my hometown, Boston’s Charles River was so polluted that our parents warned not to even touch the water. To this day, the Red Sox celebrate wins by playing The Standells’ song “Dirty Water.”

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Pressed by parents and doctors, civic leaders and a nascent environmental movement, our leaders in Washington saw this abuse of our nation’s treasures and decided to do something about it. And so, 46 years ago this week, the Clean Water Act became law.

The measure imposed some commonsense changes — changes that would make one wonder why they hadn’t been in place beforehand. Sewage facilities had to treat their waste and couldn’t dump it straight into rivers or lakes. Facilities storing oil or chemicals near water bodies needed spill prevention and clean-up plans. Permits would be required before wetlands could be destroyed. And states had to come up with plans to make their major water bodies safe enough for fishing or swimming.

And, here’s the thing: It worked.

Each year, the act’s safeguards prevent 700 billion pounds of toxic pollutants from being dumped into waterways. Oxygen levels are up; fecal bacteria levels are down. Lake Erie is very much alive. Wetland loss fell, and wetlands prevented an estimated $625 million in property damage during Hurricane Sandy alone. And as the Charles River has been cleaned up, it has become a mecca for rowers and, even, swimmers.

But success isn’t inevitable and water pollution problems remain significant. The Trump administration has directed a torrent of actions at the Clean Water Act’s protections, threatening to undo so much of what has been accomplished. The White House now is reviewing a plan to undercut the protections in the act, threatening water bodies that help supply drinking water for tens of millions of Americans.

If it proceeds as officials have forecasted, it would exempt many industrial facilities from restrictions on the toxic waste they dump on the rest of us. And it would remove protections for many wetlands, allowing them to be sacrificed to willy-nilly development.

And that’s just the beginning. The Environmental Protection Agency also moved to weaken limits on the toxic pollutants coal plants can dump into surrounding water bodies. And it’s gearing up to make it easier for wastewater treatment plants to discharge untreated or “blended” sewage during rainstorms.

It also rolled back requirements meant to ensure that coal ash dumps don’t fail and inundate surrounding communities or leach contaminants into groundwater. Coal ash is a deadly brew of carcinogens, neurotoxins and toxins such as lead, arsenic and radium.

While the Trump administration argues these moves are about curbing regulatory burdens on companies, the reality is that they will impose pollution burdens on the rest of us. Many of us may not remember the days decades ago when the Cuyahoga River caught fire or dead fish lined the beaches of Lake Erie, but the toxic algae plaguing Florida now provides a glimpse into what retreat could look like.

A red tide has made going to the beach dangerous along Gulf Coast and “green slime” due to discharges from Lake Okeechobee is killing fish — and tourism. Much like climate change and hurricanes, these algal outbreaks are natural but made stronger and larger by industrial pollution and agricultural runoff. The backdrop of the Clean Water Act is necessary to make sure smaller water bodies aren’t swamped with waste, which can then flow into larger rivers or lakes, and to ensure that contaminated waters get cleaned up.

But, nationwide we cannot wait for each crisis to lead to action. Forty-six years ago our nation confronted the challenge of protecting our streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands, and vowed to make our waterways safe for swimming and fishing. As Florida’s desperate situation shows, this is the time for redoubling our efforts, not giving up and returning to the bad ol’ days.

Jon Devine is director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Prior to joining the water program, he worked with NRDC’s Health & Environment program for four years. Previously, he served as an attorney-adviser in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of General Counsel.