Report: Over half of U.S. waters are too polluted to swim or fish

At 50 years, the Clean water Act has had success. But there are key sources of water pollution yet to be addressed.

 

A glossy ibis feeds in the Los Angeles River, California. Sections of the river are contaminated with DDT, PCBs, oil, trash and other toxins.
David Welling/Minden Pictures

Back in 1972, U.S. legislators passed the Clean Water Act with a 10-year goal: Make it safe for people to fish and swim in the nation’s waters. Fifty years later, around half of all lakes and rivers across the country that have been studied fail to meet that standard, according to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a D.C. watchdog and advocacy nonprofit. Instead, they’re classified as “impaired” — meaning that their fish are inedible, their water undrinkable, they’re unsafe for humans to swim in and inhospitable to aquatic life.

The Clean Water Act delivered a major win — it laid the groundwork for essential enforcement on industry — but there were key failures. Most notably, legal loopholes continue to allow fertilizer runoff from farmland and manure runoff from factory farms.  The pollutants, which are washed into watersheds, are considered the top cause of water pollution in the U.S., said Eric Shaeffer, executive director at the Environmental Integrity Project. The law’s inability to regulate this is its single biggest program failure, said Shaeffer. “The Clean Water Act doesn’t have effective regulation for dealing with cropland.” And powerful industrial groups continue to resist and delay implementation of further regulation.

“The Clean Water Act doesn’t have effective regulation for dealing with cropland.”

Western states, particularly Oregon and California, figure heavily in the report. Their waterways and lakes are threatened by everything from pollution to warming temperatures. While rivers and lakes have significantly improved in the 50 years since the legislation passed, the fight to make sure all waters are safe continues. “We can’t take it for granted,” Shaeffer said. “There is an awful lot of work that has gone into healing and protection.” He added that the legislation only exists because its supporters were willing to rattle the political status quo. “We are going to need to do that again.” 

Eddie Lopez and his son, Eddie Jr., play near a drainage pipe along the San Gabriel River as the Ranch2 Fire burns the Angelus National Forest on August 16, 2020. Sections of the San Gabriel River have been identified as contaminated with Coliform bacteria, cyanide, lead and other heavy metals according to the California Environmental Protection Agency.
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Environmental Integrity Project analyzed water data gathered from states through the Environmental Protection Agency. Below, a few notable numbers highlight the report’s findings: 

27%
Percentage of U.S. river and stream miles that were studied by state authorities in the recent assessment cycle.

50%
Percentage of those river and stream miles that were classified as “impaired.”

55%
Percentage of lake acres that were similarly classified.

25%
Percentage of estuary square miles too polluted to swim or fish in.

Number One
California’s rank in the U.S. for river and stream miles too polluted for drinking (37,209 miles). The state ranks third for miles too polluted for fish consumption (24,934 miles).

17,619
Miles of rivers and streams assessed in Oregon that were classified as unswimmable. Oregon has the most miles of waterways considered ”impaired“ for swimming and recreation and the most miles impaired overall for aquatic life.

67%
Percentage of industry-specific water pollution standards yet to be updated. Even though updates are mandatory every five years, they have not been changed in 30 years.

700 years
Time it would take to achieve full restoration of currently impaired waterbodies under current pace of remediation, according to an EPA report from 2011.

4
Number of Western states that top the list for the most river and stream miles impaired for aquatic life: Oregon, California, Utah and Idaho, respectively.

73%
Percentage of rivers and stream miles that were not studied by state authorities.

Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at High Country News. We welcome reader letters. Email him a [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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