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The Clean Water Act

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 40 percent of the nation's waterways are threatened by pollution. While U.S. waterways have been cleaned up dramatically as a result of the Clean Water Act, pollution is still being discharged into key waterways and coastal ecosystems, millions of Americans still drink polluted water and there are many tainted rivers and lakes where fishing and swimming are not allowed.

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, at a time when the majority of U.S. waterways were facing serious pollution problems. For example, Ohio's Cuyahoga River was so contaminated that it caught fire in 1969, and major water bodies, such as Lake Erie, were polluted to the point that they were considered "dead." The Clean Water Act was designed to address these problems by regulating the amount of pollution being released by communities and industries into the nation's rivers, lakes and streams. It is the goal of the Clean Water Act that all waterways be safe for fishing and swimming.

Nonpoint Source Pollution

The Clean Water Act has done a good job focusing on point sources of pollution - sources with identifiable, concentrated discharge points, including large industrial companies and sewage treatment plants. However, it has done little to adequately regulate pollution from nonpoint sources, such as farms, ranches, parking lots and city streets. Today, more than 60 percent of the nation's water pollution problems can be linked to these sources.

Stormwater discharge and runoff from factory farms are two of the largest nonpoint sources of pollution. Stormwater discharge systems, which transport rainwater from urban areas and commercial and industrial facilities to local waterways, carry significant amounts of pollutants and are largely unregulated. To make matters worse, many older, large cities, or cities along the coast, use combined sewers where domestic sanitary sewage, industrial wastes, groundwater and stormwater runoff are collected and treated together. During heavy rains or snowmelts, these combined sewers often cannot handle the large influx of water, causing untreated wastewater to be released into waterways. For example, stormwater runoff in South Carolina has been linked to high bacteria levels in tidal creeks that feed into the state's rivers. These levels often exceed state standards.

Federal and state environmental regulations are failing to keep up with the rapid growth of factory farms and their resulting pollution. Serious water pollution problems - such as contaminated drinking water, massive fish kills and large algae blooms - in at least 30 states have been linked to inadequate pollution control and lax enforcement of environmental regulations against these large-scale farming operations. For example, the rapidly growing poultry industry on the Eastern Shore of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia is one of the main sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In North Carolina, "hogs now outnumber [the state's] citizens and produce more fecal waste than all the people in California," according to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Wetlands and Coastal Areas

Wetlands are found in every state and come in all shapes and sizes and vary in function. They serve as "rest stops" for migratory birds and are home to about 35 percent of all federally listed threatened and endangered species. However, thousands of acres of wetlands are lost each year to urban sprawl, roadbuilding, mining, stream channelization and logging. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act is the primary federal regulatory program protecting the nation's remaining wetlands. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages a permitting program under Section 404 that regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material into U.S. waterways and wetlands. The U.S. EPA comments on permit applications, helps to set standards and has veto authority over individual permits. However, the Army Corps of Engineers' permit process has become riddled with loopholes that could undermine wetlands protection and weaken Section 404.

Like wetlands, coastal areas help control flooding, improve water quality and support fisheries. These areas also serve as critical wildlife habitat and provide enormous recreational opportunities. Also like wetlands, these vital areas are increasingly threatened by human activities. The 1972 Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) created federal incentives, including grants, for coastal states to manage these ecologically important areas. However, recent attempts to reauthorize the CZMA and encourage states to continue developing and implementing programs to control nonpoint pollution have failed.

What Can You Do

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