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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....