The Clean Water Act: thirty years later

by Donna Frye, San Diego City Councilmember, 6th District

n July 1969, Ohio's Cuyahoga River became so contaminated with industrial pollution and oil that it caught fire. Rivers from the Potomac to the Mississippi were open sewers filled with untreated human waste. Fish kills and public health warnings were commonplace. Lake Erie was devoid of fish, and an offshore oil well blowout in Santa Barbara caused millions of dollars of damage to the beaches.

    Images of rivers burning, oil saturated beaches, raw sewage discharges and fish floating belly-up were broadcast on television and captured in photographs in newspapers and magazines. The public was outraged and demanded action. The polluters lobbied against federal regulations, claiming pollution prevention would cripple business and eliminate profits. They argued for a continuation of voluntary compliance, and fought the enactment of a national, enforceable policy to prevent and regulate pollution.

    But on October 18, 1972 the public voice was heard, and Congress enacted the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, commonly known as the Clean Water Act. Its mission was to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of our nation's waterways” and to obtain fishable, swimmable waters by 1985. Congress added additional provisions in 1987 to ensure that the water quality goals, once met, would be maintained.

    Today, thirty years later, there is much to celebrate as it relates to Clean Water Act successes. Nationally, point source pollution such as discharges from industry and sewage plants has been greatly reduced. More than one billion pounds per year of toxic pollutants are now removed from our nations waterways. The Cuyahoga River is cleaner, generating substantial economic revenue from tourism and pleasure boaters. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, fishing on Lake Erie is today a $600 million-per-year industry “after a host of pollution controls were imposed and water quality improvements have been achieved.”

    Locally, there are also Clean Water Act successes. The City of San Diego is upgrading its sewer infrastructure, enforcement actions against illegal stormwater discharges have increased, and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board has adopted enforceable measures to prevent, reduce and treat polluted runoff – over the objections and lawsuits filed by the Building Industry Association and the Western States Petroleum Association.

    Even though the financial benefits of clean water have been proven time and time again, there still exists a mindset that believes many provisions of the Clean Water Act should be rolled back or ignored.

    On a federal level, the Bush administration continues to push for a reduction of the scope of the Clean Water Act by weakening its polluted water cleanup program, allowing polluters to bury mining and other industrial waste in our waterways, and stalling measures to end raw sewage discharges. In August of last year, the Bush administration appealed a judge's ruling that makes it harder to drill new offshore oil wells in California. Our city and its citizens must speak up and tell the administration that clean water matters and it's time to stop the rollbacks to our Clean Water Act.

    On a local level, we also can do more to help achieve Clean Water Act goals. First, our city must make a real commitment to enforcing the Clean Water Act by standing up against corporate polluters. This includes taking legal action, if necessary, against polluters such as Shell Oil, ExxonMobil and the Santa Fe Pacific Pipeline Partners who have violated the Clean Water Act by allowing the illegal discharge of petroleum waste to the soil and groundwater underlying the Mission Valley Terminal. These wastes threaten the water quality of the San Diego River Park and surrounding areas.

    Second, our city must require the preparation of meaningful environmental reviews to address the impacts of new development and redevelopment on both water quality and water supply. This is particularly necessary for any growth policies or elements that may be adopted as part of the city's General Plan, such as the proposed City of Villages. Our current environmental documents often ignore or gloss over basic issues such as deferred maintenance, groundwater, leaking underground storage tanks, the connection between water quality and water supply, and the sewer/water rate increases being passed on to existing users to subsidize new development.

    Third, our city should release to the public the 2001 Sewer Cost of Service Study prepared by Black & Veatch, a consulting firm hired to perform an updated report “that considers all of the wastewater treatment costs and revenue needs, and develops rate structure alternatives that would generate the necessary revenue from city residents on a fair and equitable basis.” The public paid for this report and has a right to know if the “cost of collecting and treating wastewater for residents and businesses is being properly apportioned among all system users.”

    Finally, on the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act all of us should recommit to protecting, preserving and restoring our precious water resources, not just for ourselves but for all generations to come.