clean water act

Helping to Protect Wild Salmon

To expand the conversation on climate change, we are highlighting EPA climate change research with Science Matters articles. Below, we share an article about how EPA researchers and partners are working to help protect wild salmon from warming water.

Helping to Protect Wild Salmon More

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Think at the Sink during Drinking Water Week

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By Katie Henderson

This week is national drinking water week, and the theme is “What do you know about H2O?” Have you ever considered how water travels from its source and ends up in your kitchen sink?

In 2006, I worked as a volunteer in South Africa. One day I drove across the province to visit a game preserve, leaving the city where I spent most of my time. The contrast between the city and the country was always jarring, and this day I drove farther into the countryside than I’d ever been. Gradually towns dissipated and were replaced by clusters of domed huts. Off to one side of the road, I spotted a woman and her daughter carrying buckets of water into their village. It is hard to describe the dissonance that I felt during this recreational outing to look at elephants with a liter of bottled water tucked into my seat. I’d never had to haul water into my home; I just turned on the tap and safe, clean water poured out. UNICEF estimates that many people in developing countries, particularly women and girls, walk six kilometers a day for water.

The Safe Drinking Water Act authorizes the EPA to set drinking water standards, protect drinking water sources, and work with states and water systems to deliver safe drinking water some 300 million Americans. In the U.S., the last century has seen amazing improvements to drinking water quality. Mortality rates have plummeted and life expectancy has climbed as a result of better science and engineering, public investment in drinking water infrastructure, and the establishment of landmark environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. Some historians claim that clean water technologies are likely the most important public health intervention of the 20th century.

Today, we can celebrate the fact that the vast majority of people living in the United States have access to safe drinking water. Ninety-two percent of Americans receive clean, safe drinking water every day, and EPA is working to make that number even higher by partnering with states to reduce pollution and improve our drinking water systems. However, we should be aware of new challenges to our drinking water systems like climate change, aging infrastructure and nutrient pollution.

For drinking water week this year, stop and think about how far we’ve come by paying attention each time you turn on your tap.

About the author: Katie Henderson is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Participant in the Drinking Water Protection Division of EPA’s Office of Water. She likes to travel, bake cookies, and promote environmental justice.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Discovering Silica Cycling

By Joanna Carey

Rivers draining more forested watersheds contain significantly less silica than those draining more developed watersheds.

I am standing, engrossed in quiet, on a wooden bridge in Northern Massachusetts, with a perfect view of the Ipswich River.  I can see it meander once before it eventually opens up to form a babbling riffle. This river is alive, performing complicated metabolic processes as the water moves downstream.

Thanks to my EPA Science To Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Research Fellowship, I went to this bridge (among others) weekly for a year, sampling the river for nutrients. While filtering my water samples here, people walking by would often ask, ‘how is the river doing?’

Before answering, I would hesitate; it turns out this is a complicated question!

From a human health perspective, most of the rivers I studied were in fine shape (thanks to the Clean Water Act and EPA), meaning that people could swim in the river without getting sick. However, other aspects of the river condition could use improvement.

Human activities, such as wastewater discharge, use of fertilizers, and fossil fuel combustion, are increasing the amount of nutrients flowing into rivers, which can spark excess algal growth and other negative repercussions on the entire ecosystem.

As an EPA STAR Fellow, I had the opportunity to be one of the first in the world to examine how watershed land use impacts the amount of silica in the rivers. Silica, or SiO2, is a required nutrient for diatoms, a common type of phytoplankton (tiny photosynthetic organisms) in temperate waters.

Why is the amount of silica in the rivers important?

Well, it all goes back to the fact that rivers supply over 80% of the silica that’s found in marine waters. And the amount of silica directly controls the amount and type of phytoplankton that grow in the ocean. Because phytoplankton makes up the base of the marine food chain, their type and abundance directly impacts organisms higher up on the food chain, such as commercial fisheries.

My research resulted in the discovery that land use type is indeed an important driver of the amount of silica in rivers.

I found that rivers draining more forested watersheds contain significantly less silica than those draining more developed watershed, which may be because of the large amount of silica taken up by land plants. It appears that lack of vegetation in urbanized landscapes results in more silica entering river systems. While more silica in rivers is not a bad thing, the research highlights a previously unrecognized way in which human actions are altering the environment.

For the last three years, I have been honored to be an EPA STAR Fellow. The award not only allowed me to perform the research of my dreams, but highlighted for me the importance of these fellowships for training the next generation of scientists. Thanks to the EPA, I can now count myself among the experts in aquatic biogeochemistry!

About the Author: Joanna Carey, a former STAR Fellow, is currently an ORISE post-doctoral fellow with the EPA Atlantic Ecology Division in Narragansett, RI studying the impact of oysters on nitrogen cycling in Southern New England.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the National Estuary Program, Up Close & Personal

Charlotte Harbor National Estuary program partners tour Matlacha and Pine Islands, just a few miles west of Fort Myers, Florida.

By Nancy Stoner

Last year not only marked the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, but also the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the National Estuary Program, an EPA place-based program to protect and restore the water quality and ecological integrity of estuaries of national significance. Although there have been challenges along the way, we have made significant progress in making our waters fishable and swimmable. The collaborative, partnership-driven—and non-regulatory—efforts at the 28 National Estuary Program sites across the country have had a special role in implementing the Clean Water Act.

For decades, even before the enactment of the Clean Water Act, Americans have made great strides in protecting the environment and clean water because of governments, groups and individuals working together.  The National Estuary Programs have been incredible models of this approach as they have established trust at the local level by promoting a close working relationship among a wide range of partners, and the programs are often recognized as an unbiased broker to achieve commonsense conservation goals.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of this remarkable work in person through my time here at EPA through a number of visits to National Estuary Program sites, and got a firsthand look at all the great things that are happening at the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary in Florida last December.

I accompanied state and local officials on a boat tour around the harbor’s Matlacha and Pine Islands, just a few miles west of Fort Myers. Charlotte Harbor is a popular destination for bird and wildlife watching, and now I understand why—we saw bald eagles, osprey, manatees, egrets, herons and several species of pelicans. I was equally impressed with the wide variety of programs our partners have underway, which include efforts to preserve and protect mangroves, aquatic preserves, sea grasses and wetlands.

Most of these programs are on track to achieve their goals, all while population and development in the watershed are on the rise, a sign that the protecting the environment and growing the economy can compliment one another. Some challenges still remain in the Charlotte Harbor area— like stormwater discharges, nutrient pollution and pathogens affecting water quality—but the strength of the partnerships I witnessed last month made me confident that these issues can be addressed collaboratively and with sustainable outcomes.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act

By Nancy Stoner

I am proud to be at EPA in 2012 for the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the nation’s foremost law for protecting our most irreplaceable resource. I often think about how a generation ago, the American people faced health and environmental threats in their waters that are almost unimaginable today.

Municipal and household wastes flowed untreated into our rivers, lakes and streams. Harmful chemicals were poured into the water from factories, chemical manufacturers, power plants and other facilities. Two-thirds of waterways were unsafe for swimming or fishing. Polluters weren’t held responsible. We lacked the science, technology and funding to address the problems.

Then on October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act became law.

In the 40 years since, the Clean Water Act has kept tens of billions of pounds of sewage, chemicals and trash out of our waterways. Urban waterways have gone from wastelands to centers of redevelopment and activity, and we have doubled the number of American waters that meet standards for swimming and fishing. We’ve developed incredible science and spurred countless innovations in technology.

But I realize that despite the progress, there is still much, much more work to be done. And there are many challenges to clean water.

Today one-third of America’s assessed waterways still don’t meet water quality standards. Our nation’s water infrastructure is in tremendous need of improvement – the American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a D-, the lowest grade given to any public infrastructure. The population will grow 55 percent from 2000 and 2050, which will put added strain on water resources. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is increasingly harming streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters. Climate change is predicted to bring warmer temperatures, sea level rise, stronger storms, more droughts and changes to water chemistry. And we face less conventional pollutants – so-called emerging contaminants – that we’ve only recently had the science to detect.

The absolute best path forward is partnership – among all levels of government, the private sector, non-profits and the public. It is only because of partnership that we made so much progress during the past 40 years, and it is partnership that will lead to more progress over the next 40 years.

Lastly, I want to thank everyone who has been part of protecting water and for working to ensure that this vital resource our families, communities and economy depends on is safeguarded for generations to come.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Make Some Noise: the Clean Water Act Turns 40!

By Jon Capacasa

There are all sorts of noises being made in celebration of today’s 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

Fire on Cuyahoga River Jun 29, 1969

Fire on Cuyahoga River Jun 29, 1969: The Cuyahoga River in Ohio becomes so polluted that it catches on fire. The fire helped spur an avalanche of water pollution control activities like the Clean Water Act by bringing national attention to water pollution issues.

Not the blaring type you typically hear on New Year’s Eve, but rather the noises associated with cleaner water – the squeals of young fishermen hauling in a fish from a local creek… the hum of a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant… the crunch of shovels clearing ground for rain gardens and streamside tree buffers… the clang of a cash register ringing up a marine sale… the buzz of a family picnicking along the river.

That’s music to the ears of those of us who remember when we faced health and environmental threats in our waters that are almost unimaginable by our standards today.

Since 1972, the Clean Water Act has kept tens of billions of pounds of raw sewage, chemicals and trash out of our waterways, and we’ve doubled the number of waters that meet safety standards for swimming and fishing.

In my travels around the Mid-Atlantic Region, I’ve seen the impressive work we’ve done with watershed groups and many of our other partners to improve the quality of our waters. The number of folks engaged in cleanup efforts for their local waterway is at an all-time high.  And the results have been overwhelming.

Black Water Falls, West Virginia

Black Water Falls, West Virginia

Migratory fish can now travel the full length of the Delaware River due to major increases in oxygen levels.   A major interstate program is now place for restoring the Chesapeake Bay, including a landmark pollution budgetGreen infrastructure techniques are sprouting up in our major cities and small communities as a cost-effective way to control stormwater pollution and improve community livability.  And economic development along urban waterfronts has burgeoned, like the famous Baltimore Inner Harbor and along the Anacostia River in Washington D.C., driven by commitments to cleaner water.

In every corner of the region, we have initiatives underway to protect our most irreplaceable resource, producing environmental, economic, community and public health benefits.

We’ve come a long way.  But there’s much more to do.  And we need your help to continue the progress and take the next steps.

So what does clean water mean to you?  Let us know.

Author’s Note:  Jon Capacasa is director of the Water Protection Division in EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Clean Water Act’s Big 4-0

By Tom Damm

Clean Water Act 40th Anniversary Banner

The Clean Water Act is celebrating its 40th anniversary next week.  Can’t think of the perfect gift?  We’ve got some ideas.

  • Save water around the home.   Save water and protect the environment by choosing WaterSense labeled products and taking simple steps to conserve.
  • Dig a rain garden or install a rain barrel. With a rain garden or a rain barrel, capture stormwater before it carries yard and street pollutants into sewer systems and out to local rivers and streams.
  • Volunteer in your community.  Find a watershed organization and volunteer to help. Use EPA’s Adopt Your Watershed to locate groups in your community.  If you can’t find a group to join or want to organize your own activity, check out the Watershed Stewardship Toolkit with eight things you can do to make a difference in your watershed.
  • Pick up after your pet.  Pet waste contains nutrients and bacteria that can wash into local waterways if left on the ground.
  • Do a stormwater stencil projectStencil a message next to the street drain reminding people “Dump No Waste – Drains to River” with the image of a fish. Stencils are also available for lakes, streams, bays, ground water and oceans, as well as the simple “Protect Your Water” logo with the image of a glass and faucet.

To celebrate this big milestone in the life of the Clean Water Act, get involved.  We can all do something to build on the remarkable strides made in water protection over the past four decades.

You can check out more items on the Clean Water Act’s “gift registry” here. And let us know of other steps you’ve taken to further clean and safe water.

About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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From Igniting the Environmental Movement to Restoring the Great Lakes

By Peter Cassell

On June 22, 1969, oil and debris in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. It wasn’t the first time this happened but it was an image that stuck with Americans, an image that helped us focus on threats to the environment. The formation of the Environmental Protection Agency the following year blazed a path for environmental legislation such as the Clean Water Act in 1972 and an environmental movement that is still going strong.

A few weeks ago, I helped represent EPA alongside the Canadian government, other federal agencies, non-profits, academic institutions, and businesses at Great Lakes Week 2012 in Cleveland. There were field trips, tours, and seminars about more than 700 projects going on around the basin to restore the Lakes, many funded by the President’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

Attendees also recognized the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. It helped me appreciate that waters I use today were once so polluted I wouldn’t have been able to use them then. I wouldn’t be able to squeeze in trips to the beach, kayak, or fish in my spare time if these areas weren’t cleaned up.

When I moved to Chicago two years ago I fell in love with the Great Lakes and became one of 30 million Americans around the basin who depends on the Lakes in my everyday life. Thankfully, after 40 years of the Clean Water Act, 40 years of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and three years of the GLRI, I can love the Great Lakes up close, not from afar.

Do you have a favorite memory from enjoying this beach season? Feel free to share it with me along with your thoughts on Great Lakes issues in the comment section.

To find out more about our Great Lakes restoration efforts, visit www.glri.us or follow us on Twitter (@EPAGreatLakes) or Facebook.  You can also watch clips from Great Lakes Week 2012.

About the author: Peter Cassell is a Press Officer in EPA’s Chicago office who focuses on water issues, the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Around the Water Cooler: Dive Right Into Our Latest Newsletter!

By Aaron Ferster

Chances are if you hear someone yell out “come on in—the water’s great!” you can be pretty sure they mean that the temperature of the water is delightful. Not too hot, not too cold. But 40 years ago, before the establishment of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Water Act, you might have had cause to wonder if what they were referring to was the quality of the water: that it is free of pollution or other potentially harmful contaminants.

As Dr. Suzanne van Drunick, National Program Director for EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources Research Program writes in the latest issue of our Science Matters newsletter:

“Forty years ago, the dire state of the nation’s water resources was a national concern. The assaults were direct and numerous: untreated sewage, industrial and toxic discharges, contaminated runoff, and widespread destruction of wetlands.

For many, the symbol of that decay came in June of 1969, when something perhaps as simple as a wayward spark from a passing train ignited a mass of oil-soaked debris floating on the surface of the contaminated Cuyahoga River—sending thick, billowing black clouds of smoke into the air. A river on fire.” 

As Dr. van Drunick points out, in the 40 years since, much of the nation’s waters have become significantly cleaner and safer. How did the clean up begin? It all started with science.

The EPA science and engineering designed to keep the environmental and human health success story of the Clean Water Act moving forward is the focus of the newsletter. The stories illustrate how EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources Research program is providing the innovative science and engineering solutions needed to meet 21st Century challenges, such as the need for more “green infrastructure” to reduce the burden on aging sewer systems, protecting recreational water, combating invasive species from ballast water, and much, much more.

I invite you to “dive right in” and enjoy the latest issue of EPA’s Science Matters  to learn more. 

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is an EPA science writer.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: World Water Monitoring Day

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Scientists collect samples and monitor waterToday is World Water Monitoring Day. With heavy storms promised from New York to Virginia, drought across the southwest and wildfires burning across the northwest, our water quality and quantity continue to face great challenges. Since the Clean Water Act (which turns 40 this year) was signed into action, the U.S. EPA has set standards for our water quality and to limit pollution affecting our waterways. But today, pollutants might not be dumped right into our waterways, sometimes the effects are from indirect or non-point sources.

Luckily, EPA scientists and engineers and their partners have stayed ahead of the game and are always developing new ways to monitor our water in order to keep it safe.

For example, our Watershed Assessment, Tracking and Environmental Results tool (WATERS ←see what we did there?) links several different water quality databases together so that information can be more easily shared.

Another example includes the Stormwater Management Model (SWMM—we are clever with the acronyms!) which looks at a variety of scenarios like rainfall or snow accumulation and melting or interflow between groundwater and drainage systems. Since its inception, SWMM has been used in thousands of sewer and stormwater studies throughout the world.

To learn more about our tools and models, please click here.

About the Author: A regular “It All Starts with Science” blogger, Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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