Fifty years ago, a bipartisan majority in Congress passed a landmark piece of legislation: the Clean Water Act. As the law marks its half-century, there's another potential challenge: what some call the crisis of global warming. So what can we learn from the history of the Clean Water Act? Here’s Lisa Fletcher.
The following is a transcript of a report from "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson." Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.
Early fall in northern Ohio, the meandering Cuyahoga River cuts through the city of Cleveland on its way to Lake Erie.
Peaceful now, but before the late 1960s, this river regularly caught fire, thanks to a floating toxic soup of oil and chemicals caused by unchecked industrial pollution. National press stories and pictures of the last blaze in the summer of 1969 helped ignite a powerful political movement that three years later led to the landmark Clean Water Act. One of the first major pieces of modern environmental legislation.
In Boston, John Rumpler is the clean water program director for the advocacy group "Environment America."
John Rumpler: It captured the nation's attention with vivid pictures of these flames leaping from the river, and that's one of the things that sparked the Clean Water Act — sparked the notion that we need to have national protections to ensure that our rivers, lakes, and streams are clean, instead of catching on fire with toxic chemicals.
In the early 1970s, many of America's most important waterways were dangerously polluted. The act set out to change that.
Rumpler: It had an ambitious set of goals: it was to make all of America's waterways safe for swimming and safe for fishing, and to ensure that, in fact, we had clean rivers, lakes, and streams everywhere.
Even today, polls consistently show that clean water is the public's top environmental concern, above clean air and climate change. But fifty years on, and after hundreds of billions of dollars spent, it's a mixed report card for the Clean Water Act.
Rumpler: The big picture is that we have made some progress, but we have a long way to go before all of our waterways are clean.
New York's Hudson River is one of the success stories, as is the Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary. But across the country, there are countless examples where waters remain dangerous to human and marine life.
Eve Samples: Florida, out of all fifty states, has the most acreage of lakes that are not swimmable due to water quality failures.
Eve Samples is the Executive Director of the environmental advocacy group "Friends of the Everglades."
Samples: It's clear that the Clean Water Act regulations have not done enough to protect Florida's waterways.
Lisa: What's the source of the pollution?
Samples: Sure. So, in Florida, the largest source of pollution into our waterways is agricultural. So phosphorus and nitrogen flow into our waterways, that trigger toxic algae blooms.
This is the St Lucie lock and dam. When waters release from nearby Lake Okeechobee, it flows through here. Problem is, it brings pollution that wreaks havoc on humans and wildlife.
Lake Okeechobee is known as Florida's inland sea. At 730 square miles, it's half the size of the state of Rhode Island.
Samples: Lake Okeechobee, one of the biggest lakes in all of North America, is incredibly polluted with phosphorus and nitrogen. And what happens is, when that lake water is released east to Stuart here, where we're sitting, and west to the Caloosahatchee, Fort Myers area, it triggers toxic algae blooms that have really dire consequences, not just for marine life and wildlife, but for human health.
The dangerous algae blooms now a cause of regular alerts in Florida. In 2018, they even led to the closure of some beaches on the Atlantic coast.
It’s a far different picture in Cleveland these days. Images of burning waters have faded.
Ruler: Now the Cuyahoga River is beautiful. There are people kayaking. There are even fish that are returning to this river that was caught on fire.
Fifty years on, the Environmental Protection Agency is on a victory lap, celebrating the accomplishments of the Clean Water Act. But today, new legislation to protect the environment faces a wholly different climate, a great political divide. And whether the environment or the politics wins that battle is yet to be written.
For Full Measure, I’m Lisa Fletcher.
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