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Troubled waters: two decades after passage of the Clean Water Act, American waterways no longer catch fire with chemical pollution, but they do carry invisible toxic waste that threatens fish and people.

For Norman Maclean, Montana's Big Blackfoot River was a pristine and spiritual place where any faithful fly fisherman could enjoy a near-religious experience, partaking in the best that nature had to offer. The trout-filled waters of the Blackfoot shaped Maclean's life and inspired him to write a book, A River Runs Through It, filled with romantic descriptions of the Blackfoot, which inspired Robert Redford to buy the screenplay rights and produce a movie about the beautiful river of Maclean's youth. Flyfishing, brotherhood, growing up in Montana--the Hollywood production had all the wholesome goodness of homemade bread, except for one thing. By the time Redford was ready to start filming two years ago, some 16 years after the book was published, the Big Blackfoot lacked the aesthetics necessary to serve as the setting for the movie.

Like many rivers in Montana, and in the rest of the U.S., the mighty Blackfoot has been broken by the resource-guzzling activities of humans and is no longer the proud water that Maclean described. The Montana locals weren't surprised that Redford and his crew had to simulate the Blackfoot, which hasn't supported a healthy fish population for at least 10 years. Its banks are scarred by clearcuts, and foul-looking mine waste slurps against road crossings. "The Blackfoot has been over-mined, over-cut, over-fished, over-recreated, and overlooked," says Becky Garland, president of the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which is helping to revive the river.

Taken out of context, Maclean's words are prophetic -- all of our land use practices and wastes have indeed merged into one, and our rivers run through it. Since Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, federal and state governments have worked hard to get the junk out of polluted waters. It's rare now to see a river topped with chemical foam, flowing bright red from industrial discharges, or reeking from raw sewage. But in many instances, these waters are not much healthier than they were two decades ago.

The Blackfoot is part of 2,279 miles of rivers and streams in Montana listed in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 1990 National Water Quality Inventory as having "elevated toxins." Nationwide, more than 28,000 river miles contained a hazardous level of toxins in 1990, and some 26 million fish were killed by pollution. "The public perception is that the rivers are cleaned up, that they're better than ever, because the goo is gone," says Kevin Coyle, president of American Rivers. "But if water quality is improving, then why are all the fish dying? Eventually, our rivers will look incredibly clean and they will be deadly." What worries him most is the invisible pollution that spills undetected from industry, and flows with rain water from every paved street and farmed field into rivers and streams. "Back in the 70s, people thought of water quality in terms of gooey stuff washing up on the docks," he says. "Today, non-point source pollution is the major problem for rivers, and it's not usually something people can see. Poison runoff can even be aesthetic because the water looks so clear."

When the Clean Water Act (officially called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act) was passed in 1972, the mandate was broad: "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters." But the immediate task was to stop municipalities and industries from dumping untreated or poorly treated wastes into public waters. And urban rivers like the Delaware, Potomac and Hudson, which once stunk from blocks away, are now popular spots for fishing, canoeing and picnicking. Much of the progress has come from improved wastewater treatment. The federal government has spent $56 billion on new treatment plants since the early 70s.

But controlling point-source discharges is about as far as the nation has gotten in meeting the goals of the Clean Water Act. Under the deadlines set out in 1972, by 1983 all of the nation's waters were to be fishable and swimmable. And by 1985, the discharge of any pollutant into U.S. waters was to have been eliminated. According to EPA's 1990 Water Quality Inventory, 37 percent of rivers and streams assessed did not meet fishing and swimming standards. The figure could be higher, since only 36 percent of the nation's 1.8 million river miles were monitored. And industrial releases of toxic substances into American waters still average 360 million pounds a year.

"Rivers are the catch basins for all our land use practices--farmers spraying their fields, homeowners spraying their lawns, logging, grazing, everything," Coyle says. "And our land use practices are causing aquatic species to go extinct at a rapid rate. The invertebrates are shouting out most loudly, telling us some rivers are dying."

A recent study by The Nature Conservancy found that 65 to 70 percent of bottom-of-the-food-chain aquatic species like crayfish and freshwater mussels are classified as rare to extinct, while only 11 to 14 percent of North American terrestrial species (birds, mammals and reptiles) are considered rare to extinct. Since freshwater mussels are filter-feeders and have little tolerance for water-borne pollutants, they have been seen as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. "The unprecedented decline of mussels is nothing less than a red flag, a distress signal from our rivers, streams and creeks," says Nature Conservancy president John Sawhill. "We cannot ignore this warning and the degradation of water quality that it implies."

The Clean Water Act is up for reauthorization this year, and the need for the federal government to come to the rescue of rivers is just as urgent as it was in 1969. A preliminary bill was introduced in the Senate last June by Max Baucus (D-MT), head of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and John Chafee (R-RI), the committee's ranking minority leader. Following summer hearings, the final bill is expected to be submitted to the Senate for approval early this fall.

"The House isn't as far along as the Senate with a reauthorization bill, but getting Clean Water Act legislation through this session is a top priority for Congress," says Robyn Roberts of the Clean Water Network, a coalition of 450 environmental and community organizations that want a "strengthened" Clean Water Act. Supported by national players like the Sierra Club, American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as local grassroots groups, the Network wants a reauthorized Clean Water Act that will "eliminate the use of the nation's waters--and other parts of the environment--as dumping grounds for society's wastes." The Network also wants Congress to federalize water quality programs and make them less permissive, to focus on non-point source pollution, preserve wetlands, expand regulations of toxic discharges, and prevent clean waters from getting polluted. Many of these components already appear in the broad language and numerous amendments to the Clean Water Act, but federal and state agencies are failing to carry them out. "The law seems fine to me as it is written," says Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates (NEA) in Portland, Oregon. "It's just the implementation that stinks."

Keeping Tabs

Over the past decade, local groups like NEA have led the fight against river degradation by spending a great deal of time policing the polluters to stay in compliance with water quality standards. The Willamette River no longer has rafts of sewage floating atop its waters or slime lining its banks. Municipal wastewater treatment plants have been built, industries must obtain discharge permits, and some 200 miles of greenway have been acquired for a large riverfront park system. In 1989, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described the Willamette as "one of the cleanest streams of comparable size in the nation," and the EPA often refers to it as an example of a river restoration success story.

The Willamette, however, is far from restored and requires constant management. Water levels are regulated by a series of 13 dams, most of the fish are hatchery stock, and waste discharges are diluted with impounded water. A 148-mile strip of the Upper Willamette has unsafe levels of dioxin, a carcinogenic byproduct of pulp mills and sewage treatment plants that use chlorine. Other toxins violate water quality standards in scattered sections of the river, including DDT, PCBs, chlordane, arsenic and heavy metals. On the Lower Willamette, Portland uses 43 antiquated storm drains called combined sewer outfalls (CSOs) which dump raw sewage into the river when it rains. "I wouldn't take my child swimming in the Willamette," Bell says. "There's too much sewage. You can see toilet paper floating by after a rain."

Even more frustrating than the pollution is the lack of information about it. "The fundamental problem is we don't have enough monitoring. The states aren't required by EPA to collect certain water quality data, so, like with the Willamette, information is very sketchy," Bell says. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has admitted as much: "The river's current water quality is not completely known. Much of the existing information on the river describes conventional water quality measurements, such as levels of dissolved oxygen. Insufficient information exists on other topics, such as the impact of toxins on the overall health of the river."

The Clean Water Act requires states to designate uses for rivers--usually fishing and/or swimming--and then report to the EPA on whether or not those uses are met. The EPA offers guidelines, but the decision on which rivers to monitor and what testing methods to use is up to the states. Their information gets compiled by the EPA every two years for the National Water Quality Inventory, which typically only reports on about one third of the nation's river miles. And since every state has its own testing methods, the EPA can't combine all of the information into a national overview. "In times of limited resources, you have to monitor where there are suspected problems," says Elizabeth Jester Fellows, branch chief for monitoring in EPA's Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds. "Since only about one third of rivers are monitored in a two-year period, we are recommending that the states rotate their testing each period so more rivers are covered."

The EPA also encourages states to shift their focus from testing for the obvious--specific chemicals from point-source discharges--toward monitoring for non-point source pollution. But in 1991, the federal government gave less than $70 million to states for ambient water monitoring -- assessing the quality of the aquatic environment rather than studying the effect of specific discharges. Federal monies for new wastewater treatment plants in 1991 totaled $6 billion. "Increased funding for monitoring is often viewed by Congress as a resource sink," says Fellows, "because it's hard to prove the money has been used effectively."

Richard Sparks, an aquatic ecologist with the State of Illinois, says, however, that river water quality won't improve unless the feds step up to the plate. "There needs to be more leadership from the federal government. States set up programs in response to federal requirements and grant opportunities. Most states are too strapped financially just to start up new water quality programs on their own," he says. "Our monitoring is supposed to provide a kind of 'state of the aquatic environment' report for the EPA, but I consider many of the measures the states use to gauge this as irrelevant." The EPA does recommend that states incorporate the use of biological criteria in their reporting and will require it by 1995. These methods, which involve counting the number of different aquatic species and the abundance of each, cost more than the chemical approach and require a staff of biologists--which most states don't have.

"The use of bio-criteria will result in the re-direction of money we currently spend on wastewater treatement plants to pay for the restoration of aquatic ecosystems," says James Karr, director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Washington. "Historically, states have concentrated on waters they suspected had toxic concentrations. Now, with bio-criteria, we're going to find problems in rivers the states thought were okay."

Pointless Pollution

When there is a blanket of dead fish covering a river just downstream from an industrial treatment plant, it's not hard for state and local authorities to find the source of the pollution and slap the guilty party with a fine. Non-point source pollution, however, is much more evasive -- everyone is to blame, and no one is to blame. But there's no arguing with the fact that the agricultural industry is the primary culprit in polluting our nation's rivers. The EPA reports that 50 to 70 percent of impaired or threatened surface waters are affected by non-point source pollution from agricultural activities. According to the Conservation Foundation, nearly five tons of soil erode off of one acre of farmland each year in the U.S., carrying sediment (the number one pollutant), fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides into rivers and streams.

"The industrialization of agriculture over the last two decades has had a tremendous effect on rivers," says Kevin Coyle. "The U.S. decided it would maximize farm production and be the bread basket for the world. Farmers started spraying their crops with all kinds of chemicals, and spraying weeds with herbicides instead of tilling the land. There are more chemicals being used by farmers today than ever before. The EPA approves these substances, but they don't really monitor their potentially hazardous effects. And people wonder why the cancer rate is going up in Iowa?"

The 1990 Farm Bill encourages farmers to voluntarily participate in programs that minimize the use of chemicals and control agricultural runoff, but the financial incentives for these programs are not nearly as enticing as other U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs that encourage exploitation of the land. For example, more than two-thirds of U.S. cropland is enrolled in a program where farmers receive price supports based on the average crop yield over a five-year period. This discourages the farmer from rotating crops or letting the land lay dormant, which would reduce runoff into rivers as well as the need for pesticides.

An obvious step would be to place stricter land use regulations on the agricultural industry. But the notion of making farmers comply with federal requirements is politically taboo, and downright un-American in much of the country. "Voluntary action through education is more effective than regulation in addressing our environmental issues," says James Moseley, USDA assistant secretary for agriculture for natural resources and environment. "Prohibiting the use of certain chemicals and policing and fining polluters is not the best way to deal with water quality concerns, particularly in a diversified industry such as agriculture. Regulations undermine agriculture's flexibility in determining production options."

The other major cause of non-point source pollution is urban run-off. Poisonous substances wash down city streets and storm drains from everything and everyone--from residential landscaping to road construction to motor oil. But finding ways to control the conglomeration of wastes that merge into urban runoff is a new and evolving science. "There is a lot of emphasis being placed on figuring out how to deal with non-point source pollution," says Curtis Dalpra of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. "A lot of methods for abating non-point in urban areas are not turning out to be as effective as people first thought they would be."

Accidentally Toxic

For all of the talk about non-point source pollution, toxic spills are still a serious threat to both water quality and public health. In 1990, 31 states reported concentrations of toxic contaminants in fish tissue that exceeded public health standards. Deadly substances like DDT, chlordane, PCBs and dioxin live for decades in a river's aquatic food chain. "Toxic spills and the legacy of toxic substances along riverbanks are a real problem," says Richard Sparks. "Industries have to meet requirements in order to get discharge permits, but accidents happen--and unless there's a fish kill, small spills often go undetected."

In fact, much to the surprise of unsuspecting river recreationists, accidents happen quite often. A U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) study has found that 21 percent of the nation's 7,185 major industrial and public waste treatment facilities are in serious or chronic violation of their discharge permits, and another 19 percent of the facilities report at least occasional violations. What's more, the study says, many of these facilities violate their permits on purpose because the cost of paying minimal fines to the EPA is less than that of investing in the equipment needed to comply with water quality standards. An occasional toxic spill may seem like a negligible crime, but the long-term cost to public health can be high. Sparks says that it takes many of these toxic substances decades to degrade, and as time passes the toxin "bio-magnifies" as it moves up the food chain. "A fish can tolerate a certain amount of mercury," he says, "but a human that eats several of those fish could get too big a dose." EPA studies show that dioxin bioaccumulates at very high rates, and that even immeasurably small quantities cause a range of health problems in humans from immunological disorders to cancer.

Since states want to promote clean looking rivers for recreational users, it's not uncommon to find waterways where the fish are known to contain toxins but there are no signs warning people of the danger. On a stretch of Virginia's scenic Shenandoah River there's an advisory against eating fish tainted with mercury from an industrial spill 17 years ago, but there are no signs. "People tore the signs down a long time ago and we haven't put them back up," says a Virginia Department of Health official.

"Citizens have a right to know when significant threats to their health or environment are present in their communities," says U.S. PIRG staff attorney Carolyn Hartman. "We want the Clean Water Act to require public postings on waterways that don't meet standards, or have a fishing or shellfish ban." U.S. PIRG and the Clean Water Network also support legislation to require dischargers to post a sign on the entrance of their facility that details what is going into the river and who people can contact for more information.

Congress added a section to the Clean Water Act in 1987 to accelerate efforts to control and eventually eliminate toxic point-source discharges into rivers. It requires states to identify and put on three EPA lists all sources of "priority" pollutants, and then stringently regulate those sites. A 1991 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office found, however, that the process of who gets listed is often politicized at the state and local levels. "Nationwide, EPA deleted a total of 309 facilities from the lists," says the report, primarily because "the fear of the negative image associated with being listed as a toxic pollutant discharger prompted certain industries to pressure states to make their water quality standards less stringent. In Alabama, this action resulted in nine out of 10 paper mills being deleted from the discharger list because they were no longer in violation of the new, less stringent dioxin standard."

"I'm in favor of more federal control when it comes to toxic discharges," says Nina Bell of NEA. "States are undercutting human and wildlife health in order to appeal to industry. There needs to be a provision in the Clean Water Act that recognizes some pollutants are so dangerous that there is no safe level for discharging them into our rivers. Why are we haggling over how much substances like dioxin should be diluted? Congress had to ban DDT, but it should have been eliminated through the Clean Water Act."

But focusing only on the worst pollution may create problems of its own. "Our national fixation on cleaning up the nation's most polluted water resources to minimally acceptable standards has blinded us to the imminent decline of existing pristine water bodies," says a 1992 report from the National Wildlife Federation. "If the current course remains unchanged, the consequence of continued neglect of outstanding water resources in the United States will be equally mediocre water quality everywhere."

Fulfilling the goal of the Clean Water Act, "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's water," remains a daunting task, but many environmental leaders say it is still possible. It will require federal leadership and plenty of funding, and most important, a renewed commitment to the original idea of the Clean Water Act rather than to the bureaucratic quagmire that it now represents. It will also require compromise on the part of business, government and environmental groups, but the one thing that can't be compromised is the river itself. "I hate the word 'mitigate,'" says Neal Emerald, grassroots coordinator for Trout Unlimited. "You can't make up for pollution that's already gone into a river. It's much better not to mess it up in the first place. What it comes down to is having a commitment to protecting the environment instead of raping and pillaging our natural resources." And if we don't? Beautiful, healthy rivers will go the way of the Blackfoot, and become the stuff of fiction rather than real life treasures.


The 25-foot boat darted toward the Exxon tanker under cover of night, stealthily taking water samples of the liquid being discharged. For a half year, the tiny boat had trailed tankers along New York's Hudson River as they rinsed their tanks clean of sea water tainted with jet fuel--an illegal activity Exxon would live to regret. But back in 1983 few people knew that the Hudson River had recently acquired its very own watchdog: John Cronin, better known as the Riverkeeper.

As a boy, Cronin never paid much attention to the river. "To me, the good Lord put the Hudson there to separate New York from New Jersey," quips the 43-year old. Tall and lanky with blue eyes and a mop of curly blond hair, Cronin was working as a roofer in 1972 when he first heard of an environmental sloop named the Clearwater that would be sailing into Beacon, New York. There he met Pete Seeger, folk singer and activist, who was using the sloop in his fight to clean up the 315-mile river. The Clearwater crew still sails the Hudson today, giving people a firsthand look at the river's problems. Cronin soon joined Clearwater's "Pipewatch Project"; his subsequent investigative work, taking pipe discharge samples from an adhesive tape manufacturing company, resulted in the company being fined $50,000 for violating the 1972 Clean Water Act. Cronin was hooked. For the next 10 years he worked as a lobbyist, then a legislative aide on environmental issues in Albany. But Cronin missed the river. Quitting his job, he headed down to Nyack, New York to work as a commercial fisherman where he came face-to-face with the run-off, waste and sewage that fisherment on the Hudson were dealing with.

At about the same time, writer Robert Boyle coined an idea to protect the river, derived from the tradition of the old English riverkeeper who watched over private trout streams and protected them from poachers. Cronin seemed the perfect choice for the job. Within his first three months as Riverkeeper, Cronin nabbed several offending Exxon tankers. Settling out of court, Exxon contributed $250,000 to the Riverkeeper Fund, along with an additional $1.5 million to New York State to help clean up the river. The Hudson River Improvement Fund was established by Governor Cuomo with this money, and is still in existence today.

Cronin has been busy ever since, taking on landfills, nuclear facilities and sewage treatment plants. In doing so, he's made his share of enemies. "He's overcome by his own importance," claims Robert Kirkpatrick, former town supervisor of Newburgh, New York. Cronin had sued the town for illegally dumping alum (a toxic aluminum compound) into the river in the middle of the night. Cronin agrees he has little tolerance for those who pollute: "I'm uncompromising because somebody has to be. The area we've carved out for ourselves is to be unwavering in our enforcement of environmental law because the government is not doing it," responds Cronin.

Together with the Fund's full-time attorney, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cronin has won 60 cases in federal court since 1983. His focus is now on the power plants along the Hudson. "The Indian Point plant uses one million gallons of water a minute for cooling purposes and has been killing millions of fish a year," explains Cronin. Fish had been sucked in and crushed against the plant's intake screens. Cronin's suit forced Con Edison, an electric company, to spend $20 million on fishsaving equipment. Says Cronin, thinking aquatically as usual, "We may be a small fish in a big pond, but when it comes to the river, we mean business."

For information on what's being done to improve rivers and streams and how you can get involved, contact:

* American Rivers, 801 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20003/(202) 547-6900.

* Clean Water Network, 1350 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005/(202) 624-9357.

* EPA Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds, 401 M Street SW WH-556F, Washington, DC 20460/(202)260-7166.

* National Wildlife Federation, "Keeping Clean Waters Clean" Program, 1400 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036/(202) 797-6800.

* Northwest Environmental Advocates, 133 SW Second Avenue, Portland, OR 97204/(503)295-0490.

* U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 215 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20003/(202)546-9707.

Endangered Rivers

1. Rio Grande and Rio Conchos River

System, Colorado, New Mexico,

Texas, Mexico

2. Columbia and Snake River System,

Northwest U.S., Canada

3. Everglades, Florida

4. Anacostia River, Washington D.C.,


5. Virgin River, Utah, Arizona, Nevada

6. Rogue and Illinois River System,


7. Penobscot River, Maine

8. Clavey River, California

9. Alsek and Tatshenshini River

System, Alaska and

British Columbia

10. Platte River, Nebraska

Threatened Rivers

11. Animas River, Colorado

12. Beaverkilt (lower) and Willowemec

River System, New York

13. Blackfoot River, Montana

14. Eleven Point River, Missouri

15. Little Big Horn River, Wyoming

16. Los Angeles River, California

17. Moose Creek, Alaska

18. Skokomish River, Washington

19. St. Mary's River, Virginia

20. Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania

21. Tennessee River, Kentucky

22. Thorne River, Alaska

23. White River, Arkansas

24. Yuba South, California


Source: American Rivers
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earth Action Network, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on John Cronin who works to monitor Hudson River pollution
Author:Speart, Jessica
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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