Water athletes call for clean water infrastructure

Media Contacts
John Rumpler

Clean Water Director and Senior Attorney, Environment America

As 2021 Tokyo Olympics continue, water sports competitors want to ensure U.S. waterways are safe for swimming

Environment America

WASHINGTON — Swimmers, sailors, surfers, and rowers from 30 different states called on Congress Tuesday to invest billions of dollars in clean water projects as part of any major federal infrastructure package. More than 130 water athletes, including Paralympic swimmers Zachary Shattuck and Joey Peppersack and U.S. college student and Haitian Olympic swimmer Emilie Grand’Pierre, signed a letter calling on Congress to invest “$10 billion per year for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, with 20 percent of those funds dedicated to nature-based solutions that prevent runoff pollution” to protect the health of U.S. waterways. 

“Wherever our athletes compete, from Biscayne Bay to Puget Sound, the last thing they need is pathogen pollution that could make them sick,” said John Rumpler, clean water director for Environment America. “It’s time for Congress to step up water infrastructure investment to ensure all of America’s waterways are safe for swimming.”

Environment America Research & Policy Center’s Safe for Swimming report, released earlier this summer, found billions of gallons of sewage overflows and runoff pollution contribute to disturbingly high levels of fecal-indicator bacteria in waterways across the United States.  

Pathogen pollution has sickened both students and Olympic athletes. Julia Geskey, a former collegiate swimmer at the University of Mary Washington who signed the letter, was hospitalized after swimming in the Rappahannock River in eastern Virginia. Tests there found high levels of E. coli, a common indicator of pathogens. And at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, where waters were contaminated with sewage, the U.S. team physician said she believed it made several rowers sick.

“It’s alarming to know there is so much water pollution that could make me sick while sailing,” said Lera Andres, a sailor from Bellingham, Wash., who signed the letter. “Every athlete wants to be able to compete at a high level, but we can’t do this if we’re getting sick in the water. Just like in any other sport, it’s important that our competition space is safe to use.”

According to the EPA, repairing and updating our water infrastructure will require roughly $750 billion over 20 years. The INVEST Act, passed by the House earlier this month, included bold funding increases to curb sewage overflows and remove lead pipes. The bipartisan infrastructure framework under consideration in the Senate has far less funding for water infrastructure.

“When it comes to clean water, we say, ’Go for the gold,’” said Rumpler. “Wherever we swim or paddle or surf or drink, Americans deserve to have clean water that’s safe for use and recreation. If we don’t, Congress should make it so.”