The Changing Face of the Clean Water Act

In June of 1969 a train crossing the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland tossed a spark that ignited oil and kerosene floating on the river’s surface. The fire spread to debris caugh beneath the train trestle, and the Cuyahoga River fire was born. Though the fire burned for less than 30 minutes, the resulting outcry from the public created an institution that has existed for over 30 years.

That institution, the Clean Water Act, has changed over the years.

Today no one would think of a burning river, but in 1969 it was very much a reality. Gail Hesse, Manager of the Division of Surface Water for Ohio EPA, says the burning Cuyahoga River and polluted streams and lakes of the late sixties led to the creation of the Clean Water Act, which has worked to clean up the nation’s water for the past thirty years.

Hesse says, “It was the Cuyahoga River up in northeast Ohio, certainly caught national attention back in 1969, and the Cuyahoga River didn’t just burn once, it burned many times, but there was one particular media event that captured national attention, and then certainly Earth Day in 1970 was a pivotal event in the history, with the advent of the Clean Water Act coming into play in 1972.”

She adds, “The major goal of the Clean Water Act is to restore and protect the physical, biological, and chemical water quality of the nation’s waters.”

The usual suspect in the fight against pollution is a pipe discharging contaminated water, known as a point source, but more general culprits, such as fertilizer and pesticide runoff from agriculture fields, known as non-point sources, cannot be pinpointed.

Hesse says that addressing point sources led to a change in focus for the Clean Water Act.

“What’s evolved over time is that as we’ve cleaned up the point sources and have continued on with our monitoring assessment programs we’ve unmasked and identified a lot of our non-point source problems. So in about 1996-1997 we identified non-point sources of pollution as the leading causes of impairment for Ohio. “That’s not to say that we still don’t have individual issues with some point sources around the state, but they tend to be much more localized problems, as opposed to the wide-spread, chronic problems that we had in the early years,” she says.

Shifting from point sources to non-point sources of pollution has also lead to a change from examining rivers individually to looking at collections of connected rivers known as watersheds. Linda Oros of the Ohio EPA Public Interest Center explains the need to look at the larger picture.

She says, “One way to think about it, too, is that water flows, which seems so ridiculously obvious, but yet, when you take a watershed approach you’re looking at when that water flows and there’s a problem in this part of the river and it’s going to carry into some other segment and it’s going to have a wider spread impact, so we have to look at the whole picture rather than just a segment.”

The Ohio EPA’s goal is to have 80% of all rivers and streams clean by 2010, but Hesse hopes that in the future the EPA will aim higher.

Hesse says, “One could think of 80 as a low B. I mean, I think we should have higher aspirations than a low B. But we’ve got a lot of work to do to get to 80, so hopefully we’ll achieve that and reach beyond.”

The long term goal, Hesse says, is to maintain the water quality once a watershed is clean. No one at the Ohio EPA wants to see their work deteriorate into another burning river.

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