Equilibrium & Sustainability

Fifty percent of U.S. waterways impaired by pollution: report

The Hoosic River as it runs through the village of Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
Associated Press - Mike Groll

A half century after the passage of the federal Clean Water Act, 50 percent of U.S. river and stream miles are so polluted that they are classified as “impaired,” a new report has found.

Not only are 50 percent of these waterways impaired, but so too are 55 percent of lakes, ponds and reservoirs and 25 percent of bays, estuaries and harbors — meaning that none of these resources are suitable for public uses, according to the report.

These findings, published by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project, marked both the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and four decades since the law’s deadline for making all U.S. waters “fishable and swimmable.”

“The Clean Water Act should be celebrated on its 50th birthday for making America’s waterways significantly cleaner,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of civil enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement

“However, we need more funding, stronger enforcement, and better control of farm runoff to clean up waters that are still polluted after half a century,” Schaeffer added. “Let’s give EPA and states the tools they need to finish the job — we owe that much to our children and to future generations.”

Enacted in 1972, the Clean Water Act directed more than $1 trillion into developing wastewater treatment plants and improving water quality during its first three decades. But the legislation, which the report’s authors described as “a crowning achievement of the environmental movement,” has failed to achieve its goals a half-century later, according to the report. 

Some unachieved Clean Water Act goals include the production of “fishable, swimmable” waters across the country by 1983, as well as the elimination of pollution from navigable waters by 1985, the authors noted.

The authors drew their conclusions by analyzing data available in the most recent Integrated Water Reports filed by individual states to the EPA. Within these datasets, they looked at the quantity of U.S. waters classified as impaired due to pollution: more than 700,000 miles of rivers, streams and creeks, more than 11 million acres of lakes, ponds and reservoirs and more than 19,000 square miles of bays, estuaries and harbors.

Indiana had the highest total miles of rivers and streams classified as impaired or unusable for swimming and water contact recreation, the report found. Florida, meanwhile, ranked first for total acres of lakes classified as impaired for swimming and aquatic life.

California topped the charts for most river and stream miles listed as impaired for drinking water, while Louisiana ranked first for the most estuaries considered impaired for any use, according to the report.

Delaware had the highest percentage of rivers and streams listed as impaired for any use — clocking in at 97 percent — followed by New Jersey at 95 percent and Hawaii at 91 percent. The authors found that Iowa, meanwhile, experienced farm runoff problems, with 93 percent of its assessed river and stream miles impaired for swimming and recreation.

The Environmental Integrity Project slammed the EPA for neglecting its duty under the Clean Water Act to review and update technology-based standards for pollution control systems used by industries. By 2022, two-thirds of the agency’s industry-specific water contamination limits had not been revised in three decades, despite the law’s requirement that reviews occur every five years, according to the report.

In response to the findings, an EPA spokesperson told The Hill that the “EPA is aware of the report and will review.”

The report’s authors suggested a variety of additional solutions for improving the current situation, such as calling upon Congress to close a Clean Water Act loophole that allows for agricultural runoff and other “non-point” pollution sources — or pollution that does not originate from one identifiable source. They also proposed the creation of more consistent, universal guidelines for waterway impairment classifications nationwide. 

As states begin to receive funds allocated toward water in November’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, the authors stressed that lawmakers should target the money toward water pollution control, particularly in lower-income communities of color. Such communities, they argued, have long suffered disproportionate impacts from pollution.

“The fight for clean water is far from over, and for all its successes, the Clean Water Act has still not met its promise of achieving and protecting fishable and swimmable waters for all in California or anywhere else,” Bruce Reznik, executive director of the organization LA Waterkeeper, said in a statement.

“Stronger clean water laws and regulations combined with greater enforcement is critical if we hope to meet our greatest water-related challenges, including ensuring equitable access to clean water,” he added.

Updated at 1:43 p.m.

Tags Clean Water Act Environmental Integrity Project Environmental Protection Agency water quality
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