THE CLEAN WATER ACT
|Because Everybody Lives Downstream|
In June 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. A few weeks later, a Time magazine report described the river as “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.” This was a dramatic illustration of the state of the nation’s waterways. At that time, industrial waste and untreated sewage were routinely dumped without concern, and two-thirds of the country’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing or swimming. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, signed in October 1972, this is just a bad memory.
Congress passed the Clean Water Act to protect the “waters of the United States.” For forty years, both the courts and the agencies responsible for administering the Act interpreted it to broadly protect our nation’s rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Rivers no longer burn, fish have returned to many waters, and the rate of wetland loss is lower. Not many people talk about how this act benefited invertebrates, but the return of fish is intimately wrapped up with the recovery of invertebrates at the base of the food chain.
Unfortunately, new court rulings have narrowed the definition of the law, so that it no longer protects all waterways. Rivers that are within one state, those that sometimes run dry, and lakes unconnected to larger water systems are now excluded. Additionally, pesticide regulations have been relaxed, so that increasingly they can be used near or over waterways.
Invertebrates can be a very important piece of the puzzle for understanding and protecting our waterways. These animals act like “the canary in the coal mine” allowing us to better understand which streams, rivers, and wetlands are impaired. The Xerces Society has resources that help watershed stewards, agencies staff, and others to use invertebrate to assess these areas. We also work to protect key species like freshwater mussels, long-lived animals that actually help clean waterways.
You can help keep our water clean too!
- Visit the EPA’s “Adopt Your Watershed” web page to find groups working to protect and restore your local waterway.
- Visit Xerces’ Aquatic Program web pages to find resources for watershed stewardship.
- Old motor oil, paint, pet waste, and pesticides are major sources of water pollution. Make sure storm drains are marked so that people do not dump pollutants in them.
- Avoid using pesticides. If you must, use the least toxic and dispose of them properly to prevent them from entering waterways.