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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Threats to Clean Water Today

Air Date: Week of

Today one of the biggest threats to clean rivers comes from agricultural runoff. (NOAA)

The Clean Water Act has had considerable success over 40 years, but now it faces challenges such as crumbling infrastructure, stormwater overflows, agricultural runoff and lack of enforcement. Host Ashley Ahearn discusses some of those challenges with Robert McClure of Investigate West.


AHEARN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Ashley Ahearn.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. Welcome back to our special coverage of the Clean Water Act at 40. Now Ashley, we should mention that Living on Earth has partnered with EarthFix - an environmental news service in the Northwest - to take a look at the Clean Water Act over the past 4 decades.

AHEARN: That’s right. We’ve been exploring what the Clean Water Act has accomplished over the years and where Clean Water is still threatened in this country.

CURWOOD: So, back when the act passed in 1972 there were rivers catching fire, fish washing up dead by the thousands, and raw sewage flowing into waterways from Maine to Hawaii. We have come a long way, but there’s more progress to be made, of course.

AHEARN: Right, and as you might imagine, the challenges we face today are different from the ones we faced back when the Clean Water Act was first created. Now we’ve got polluted runoff from large-scale agricultural operations, dirty storm water washing off of city streets – aging wastewater treatment systems – just some examples here, Steve.

CURWOOD: One of the things people might not know about the Clean Water Act is that yes, it regulates pollution, but it also allows pollution. This is not a no pollution act, it’s really more of a pollution diet.

AHEARN: That’s right.

CURWOOD: So, how does it work?

AHEARN: Well basically, big polluters have to get a permit, which in fact gives them permission to pollute. The rationale is that every five years or so that permit will be renewed and when it is, there will be better technology that will be incorporated to ratchet down pollution over the years.

CURWOOD: So what have we seen in the way of that ratcheting down?

AHEARN: Well, it certainly happened in the early years – when we went from having rivers that were on fire to having rivers that weren’t on fire – but in recent decades that’s really slowed down a lot.

CURWOOD: So where do we see the highest concentrations of permitted polluters?

AHEARN: That’s in the urban areas – all the centers of manufacturing, human activities in cities – factories, sewage treatment, boat yards – all the things that we do that let at least a little bit of pollution into the water.

I headed to Seattle’s Duwamish River to take a look. It’s an urban waterway that’s also been declared a Superfund site because of all the industrial activity that’s taken place along its banks over the years.

CURWOOD: Alright, let’s take a listen.


AHEARN: For many Seattleites, the Duwamish is an invisible river. But it’s not a quiet one. The river comes in the back door of the city, to the west of I-5, past storm water outflows, marinas, rusting barges and heaps of scrap metal. It escapes to Puget Sound beneath the West Seattle bridge, between piles of shipping containers and giant cranes. But despite all that, this river is on the path to recovery.

Perhaps no one has been monitoring that recovery as closely as James Rasmussen and Chris Wilkie. Wilkie is the head of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, and Rasmussen is with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. We’re on a motorboat heading up the Duwamish.


AHEARN: So, where are we, James?

RASMUSSEN: We’re about ready to cross underneath the Spokane Street Bridge. Most people who cross over this bridge live in West Seattle or are traveling to West Seattle, don't know that this is the Duwamish River because there’s no sign on this bridge.

AHEARN: Rasmussen pulls out maps of the river. They’re dotted with patches of grey, red and yellow representing high levels of arsenic, PCBs and dioxins. These are all dangerous pollutants, leftovers from this river’s industrial legacy.

CURWOOD: So you have these legacy polluters on the Duwamish, alongside present day permitted polluters. But this isn’t just a problem on the Duwamish.

AHEARN: That’s right. EarthFix partnered with the non-profit investigative journalism organization, Investigate West, and we dug into the data on pollution permit violators. I worked with Robert McClure – he’s the executive director. We took a close look at the Duwamish – and beyond.

MCCLURE: Yeah, absolutely we did see violations of a number of permits there on the Duwamish but that’s very typical across the country. Very large percentages of permitted facilities are violating their permits at one time or another. That’s the same picture that came up in a study that EPA did nationwide about four or five years ago. There are a lot of facilities that are routinely violating their pollution limits.

AHEARN: And is that a function of lack of enforcement on the local level with state ecology departments?

MCCLURE: It certainly is what we found in the Northwest. We found that very strapped agencies, that in the cases of Washington or Oregon, whole classes of polluters were not being enforced upon because of resource constraints. It’s a money thing at the state agencies. I believe in northwest Oregon there was three and a half full time equivalent employees to supervise more than 1,000 facilities and that includes not just the enforcement and the inspections and all that, but also issuing the permits and looking over all the reports that they send in. So think about that. The numbers there are kind of staggering. And so the response was to just stop looking at certain categories of polluters.

AHEARN: One category of polluters is agriculture. As we move away from the cities, these urban hotspots for permitted polluters, tell me about agricultural runoff, agricultural pollution when it comes to the Clean Water Act and how it is regulated.

MCCLURE: Well it was left out. It was specifically left out when the Clean Water Act was passed and that was ostensibly because there would be differences in regulation from state to state because, supposedly, agriculture would be so different from state to state. I think anyone who has gone back and looked at it has seen that in fact it was a political calculation. What it means for us 40 years down the road, is that when you look broadly across the landscape, agriculture is the number one reason we’re not meeting the goals of the Clean Water Act.

AHEARN: And, briefly, what are the problems with agriculture? What kind of problems do agriculture present to clean water and keeping waters clean?

MCCLURE: Well, they are allowed to dump dirty water into streams, to be very simple about it. One of the things that happens of course is that when you farm, you cut down all of the vegetation. And that allows a lot of things to happen. The rain doesn't get slowed down, so a lot of dirt runs off into the streams, also allows the streams to get overheated. We found that that was a fairly large problem that was surprising to us; that that’s one of the biggest reasons that streams in the Northwest at least are not meeting the goals of the Clean Water Act is that they’re getting too hot.

AHEARN: And it’s also a function of livestock waste and fertilizers from farming, actual farming crops.

MCCLURE: Absolutely, yes, no doubt about it. Livestock and concentrated animal feeding operations and just regular old pasturing can produce a lot of livestock waste. And of course, then, fertilizers, yeah, that’s huge. That’s a lot of what you see in the middle part of the country – real problems with over application of fertilizer.

AHEARN: So, human waste is a problem for clean water, of course, and we’ve come a long way since the Clean Water Act was created back in 1972. Now we have sewage treatment plants around the country – talk to me about those – how are they working and what are some of the problems that you found in that?

MCCLURE: Sure, one of the biggest problems before the passage of the Clean Water Act was inadequate sewage treatment, and certainly the passage of that law and the provision of money by the federal government for local governments to improve their sewage treatment has been one of the crowning achievements of the Clean Water Act. The trouble is, that that was a generation ago or more, and the sewage treatment plants that were built or improved - they are getting old and they are breaking down.

But we don't have that kind of cash floating around to do that anymore. And so you get out into the countryside in particular, into these little towns that they may have a dwindling population and we’re talking about large needs. In Idaho there’s a town of about 300 that needed to come up with a million dollars to fix its sewage treatment plant, so, you know, start doing the math.

AHEARN: Here’s an excerpt from a story that gets to that exact issue. It was produced by EarthFix’s Bonnie Stewart. Bonnie went to a small town in Washington to find out how cash-strapped communities are coping with these costs.

STEWART: The eastern Washington town of Harrington is surrounded by farmland. It’s home to 420 people. In 2005 the city had to build a new wastewater treatment plant. Mayor Paul Gilliland climbs into a white pick-up truck and takes us on a tour.


GILLILAND: You start here; coming in from the city is the main sewer pipes that brings the 50,000 gallons a day down in from the city into our diverter box into the swirl concentrators that pull out large chunks of… ah, mostly feminine disposable apparatus that you flush down the toilet without thinking.

STEWART: The city of Harrington is short staffed. Fire chief Scott McGowan also has to manage the drinking water system and the wastewater treatment plant.

GILLILAND: He’s in charge of anything with the sewer system. If it breaks in town he has to go fix it… he’s spread very, very thin.

STEWART: That’s why Mayor Gilliland plans to become a certified wastewater treatment plant operator too. Then he can be the backup for the fire chief. The new plant has not been trouble-free. Breakdowns have led to violations and expenses. And, of course, building the plant wasn’t cheap.

GILLILAND: The city still has seven years after we built it. One and a half million dollars that it still owes and it’s been a burden.

STEWART: The plant has operating costs too. Driving the monthly sewer fee rate to $60 dollars per household. That’s $20 dollars more than Seattle charges, and $5 dollars more than Portland. Having a fire chief operate a wastewater treatment plant may be unique to Harrington, but cities across the country are struggling to keep waters clean. In the Pacific Northwest alone, there are 550 municipal wastewater plants, many of them have fallen out of compliance.

AHEARN: That was EarthFix’s Bonnie Stewart. I’m Ashley Ahearn and joining me is Robert McClure, he’s Executive Director of Investigate West. OK Robert, we’ve got ageing treatment facilities, lack of enforcement on the local level, unregulated agricultural runoff… these are all on the list of threats to clean water in this country today. And then we have emerging contaminants, this new family of chemicals that are making their way into our waterways. Can you talk about that?

MCCLURE: Sure, there are a whole bunch of chemicals that are on the market and in the various things that we use around the house and on the lawn that are getting into our waterways. And the Clean Water Act just isn’t set up to deal with those.

AHEARN: Right. And some of those chemicals have been shown to mimic the natural hormones in our bodies, and they can cause problems with reproductive health and development, metabolism, even behavior patterns in animals and people. Reporter Cassandra Profita took a look at some of those chemicals in this next story:

PROFITA: Dave Solm lives on a cul-de-sac in Oregon City. His house is immaculate. Every tool in the garage has its own hook, the countertops in the kitchen are gleaming. But in his house, as with most houses, toxic chemicals are hiding in plain sight. And he wants to know where.

SOHM: I’m curious about what things there are and I don’t know what impacts I may be having that I’m not even aware of.

PROFITA: Jen Coleman is at Sohm’s house to help. She works on reducing toxics for the Oregon Environmental Council.

COLEMAN: I would say the place to start is the bathroom.

PROFITA: Armed with a list of chemicals that have toxic effects on people and the environment, Coleman digs through cabinets, checks ingredient lists and compares them with contaminants that have been found in local waterways. First on her list is a chemical called triclosan. It’s found in antibacterial soaps, toothpaste and deodorant. And it can be toxic to fish.

COLEMAN: What I’m looking for first is the ingredients you might find in the things you put on your skin or your hair and then rinse off on the shower, in the bathroom.

PROFITA: The water that goes down the drains and toilets in Sohm’s house is funneled into a wastewater treatment plant. The plant removes pollutants and sends treated water into the Willamette River. But scientists are increasingly finding evidence that everyday chemicals, pharmaceuticals and human hormones pass right through the treatment plants and into waterways across the country.

MORACE: What goes down your drain really does go somewhere.

PROFITA: That’s Jennifer Morace. She’s a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. She tested the water coming out of nine wastewater treatment plants in the Northwest, and found traces of dozens of chemicals, from household products.

MORACE: A lot of people may think, ‘oh, it goes to a treatment plant so it’s taken care of.’ But there’s only so much we can take care of.

AHEARN: So, bottom line, Robert, this stuff is not getting treated.

MCCLURE: That’s right, because the treatment plants aren’t designed to treat it.

AHEARN: So, beyond the personal care products and the things that sneak through the wastewater treatment system, some contaminants don’t even go through the treatment system to begin with and are instead flushed directly into nearby waterways from urban streets. Talk to me about storm water runoff.

MCCLURE: Sure, it’s a huge problem. It’s a growing problem because as we continue to develop, of course, we put down more hard surface; streets and parking lots and roofs and all that. In fact, it’s been calculated that across the United States, an area equivalent to the state of Ohio has been paved over or otherwise put under a hard surface.

AHEARN: And that has very real affects on wildlife. I want to take you now to a visit that I did with Jen McIntyre, she’s a scientist with Washington State University. And she studies what storm water runoff does to Coho salmon. We walked down a long row of tanks in her lab. After a recent rainfall, McIntyre and her team collected almost 100 gallons of water flowing off one of Seattle’s major freeways, and took it here. They poured some of the water through plastic columns filled with soil and plants to filter pollutants out of the road runoff. Then, they added juvenile Coho salmon.

MCINTYRE: And I don’t know if we’re going to be able to see it, there are fish swimming around in the bottom of these treatments.

AHEARN: These fish are lucky. They were put in a tank of filtered water. Some of the other fish, not so much…

MCINTYRE: Behind door number two, we have some of the runoff water. And as you can see it’s not very clean. And I couldn't even see the fish in here when they were in here.

AHEARN: The fish weren’t in here very long. The straight cocktail of petroleum hydrocarbons, dirt, heavy metals, and particles of tires and brake pads and other pollutants that show up in storm water all over the country, made short work of those fish.

MCINTYRE: Right away, within the first day of this experiment, we saw that the fish in the street runoff all died. And the fish in the water that had been put through the soil columns are still alive.

AHEARN: Scientists have known for some time that urban storm water runoff is bad for fish. The pollutants in it can affect fish development and cause cardiovascular problems and brain hemorrhaging. But the undiluted water McIntyre collected straight from the freeway is even more toxic than your average urban creek. She’s putting the water through several different filtering combinations. Some have compost, some have plants, some don’t.

MCINTYRE: At the end of the day, the winner takes all. And when we find the most effective treatment, then we can start applying that out in the real world, so to speak. That’s what we’re very hopeful for.

AHEARN: I think that’s what I loved about learning about Jen McIntyre’s research, is that she is looking for solutions, she’s not just highlighting the problem. Robert, why is research like this important?

MCCLURE: Because this is a problem that we actually can get a handle on, that there are solutions to. Our knowledge of storm water pollution and what it’s been doing to us and our waterways has been growing, but now we’re to the point that we’re actually actively looking for solutions and cities across the country to varying degrees are doing this. One thing that’s happening across the Northwest is people are starting to very carefully look at the way that we’re building our cities and asking: ‘well, how much hard-scape do we need? And, why can’t we have greener cities, lusher cities?’

And really a lot of the solutions to storm water pollution involve things that are esthetically pleasing. It’s putting in a rain garden or vegetated soil. The more greenery you put in, the less water gets through.

AHEARN: Yeah, briefly describe: How does a rain garden work?

MCCLURE: Sure, a rain garden is a depression where water is funneled purposely and it is planted with hardy plants that are not going to be killed by taking in toxic runoff. The water goes in and soaks into the ground rather than running off into the street.

AHEARN: So, it’s sort of recreating nature’s natural filtration mechanism?

MCCLURE: That’s right. And placing them very strategically. Another important concept is one called low-impact development, which is how we build the cities in the first place. And, to oversimplify, what’s being said is that we need to build up, instead of out. And leave as much native vegetation and native soil in place as possible. And sort of minimize our footprint even within the city.

AHEARN: So, after all the threats to clean water that you and I have discussed today Robert, what gives you hope when you’re covering this issue?

MCCLURE: Oh, just the fact that it is getting a lot of attention and that people do care. And that there are people like Jen McIntyre out there who are slogging away every day trying to find solutions. We’ve come a long way too – when you look back at the Clean Water Act, think of the progress that we’ve made. We didn’t meet all the goals, we still have a long way to do that, but look around and we have made progress and we can continue to make progress if we put our minds to it.

AHEARN: Robert, thanks so much for joining me.

MCCLURE: Oh, it was fun, thanks!

AHEARN: Robert McClure is the executive director of Investigate West.



Robert McClure’s report for Investigate West about storm water runoff

More about the campaign to clean up the Duwamish River in Seattle


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