Clean Water Act turns 35: challenges lie ahead

Environment Colorado

DENVER— Clean water advocates celebrated the Clean Water Act’s 35th anniversary alongside the Platte River today, highlighting the Act’s successes as well as its challenges outlined in a new report by Environment Colorado entitled Troubled Waters: An analysis of Clean Water Act compliance.

According to the report, in 2005 more than 45 percent of industrial and municipal facilities across Colorado discharged more pollution into our waterways than their Clean Water Act permits allow.

“As the Clean Water Act turns 35, Colorado still faces serious challenges with polluters fouling our rivers, lakes and streams,” said Matt Garrington, Field Director at Environment Colorado.  “Over 25% of our rivers and 43% of our lakes fail to meet water quality standards for designated uses such as agriculture, aquatic wildlife, recreation, or drinking water.”

The goals of the 1972 Clean Water Act are to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into waterways and make all U.S. waterways swimmable and fishable.  Over the last three and a half decades, this landmark environmental law has resulted in significant improvements in water quality, but the original goals have yet to be met. 

Eddie Kochman, former state aquatic wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife and lifetime angler, hailed the Clean Water Act for its role in cleaning up the Arkansas River.

“The Arkansas River near Leadville went from a designated toxic waste site to a world class fishery,” said Kochman. “This turnaround wouldn’t have been possible without good science showing us what affects water quality and the necessary protections provided by the Clean Water Act.”

“This isn’t to say that the tough work is over,” continued Kochman. “Outside my land near Fairplay, I’ve seen drastic impacts from mining operations to local waterways. We need vigorous enforcement to protect our waters.”

Jonathan Kahn, owner of Confluence Kayaks echoed that concern. “The Platte River holds so much potential as a local recreation site, but restoration of the river still has a long way to go. Thankfully, the Clean Water Act provides important protections to move us toward that goal.”

Environment Colorado obtained data on facilities’ compliance with the Clean Water Act between January 1, 2005 and December 31, 2005 using the Freedom of Information Act.  Environment Colorado researchers found that:

Fifty seven percent of all major U.S. industrial and municipal facilities discharged more pollution into U.S. waterways than allowed by law at least once during 2005. The average facility exceeded its pollution permit limit by 263 percent, discharging close to four times the legal limit.

• 45 percent of Colorado’s industrial and municipal facilities exceeded their Clean Water Act permits at least once in 2005. 

• 49 facilities in Colorado reported more than 120 exceedances of their Clean Water Act permits in 2005.

• On average, Colorado facilities exceeding their Clean Water Act permits did so by 223 percent, or by more three times the legal limit.

Myrna Poticha is a national board member of Clean Water Action and former member of the Water Quality Control Commission from 1975 to 1985 appointed by then-Governor Dick Lamm. Poticha pointed toward challenges with enforcement as a significant factor in the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act.

“The Bush administration is actively undermining protections to Colorado’s waterways,” said Poticha. “By slashing the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding, Colorado has lost important water quality expertise. The EPA used to work in close collaboration with the state on water quality, but those resources are greatly diminished.”

The Bush administration also cut EPA grants for state enforcement by 22 percent between 2004 and 2006, making it harder for states to meet staffing needs. Last spring, the Colorado General Assembly voted to increase funding to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for water quality enforcement.

“Colorado used to lead the nation in safeguarding water quality, but long-term budget cuts have taken a toll on Colorado’s ability to police water quality,” said Poticha. “The Colorado legislature made an important step to upping enforcement, but we still don’t have enough cops on the beat protecting our waters.”

Environment Colorado noted that the findings are likely just the tip of the polluted iceberg, since the data analyzed includes only “major” facilities and does not include pollution discharged into waters by the thousands of minor facilities across the country. 

A full copy of the report can be found online here.