Progress Toward Cleaner Water Isn’t Just Pass-Fail

by Jon Capacasa
Imagine your child brings home a test with a failing grade. With time, her grades improve to a solid “C” or a “B.” Before the year is over, she earns an occasional “A.” Though she hasn’t achieved “straight A” performance, you celebrate her improvement with hopes it will motivate her toward future successes.

Looking back over 42 years of the federal Clean Water Act, there have been similar, incredibly positive improvements in the quality of our nation’s waters which deserve attention. No longer are rivers on fire or are streams serving as open sewers. Visible pollution is way down. However, the job of sharing the news about these improvements has been difficult.

Capturing progress is complicated by a “pass or fail” approach to declaring “attainment” – or full achievement – of water quality standards. In the world of water quality standards, waterbodies are either in non-attainment (an “F” grade) or full attainment (an “A”). Adding complexity, a waterway can be in attainment for some activities (like swimming, recreational use, and fish consumption) and not others. Telling the story of water quality improvements can be complicated; however, EPA is committed to telling more stories of incremental progress using hard data and good science.

One tale of improvement is the story of the Delaware River. In the 1970s, its water quality was so bad that the spring and summer dissolved oxygen (DO) levels in the Philadelphia-Camden stretch bottomed out to “zero” during many weeks. The lack of oxygen was a roadblock to migratory fish who could not navigate the river for spawning. Building on decades of work by the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), basin states, and municipal wastewater treatment plants, EPA’s Clean Water Act construction funding and enforcement of proper discharge permits spurred a tremendous rebound for the river. Now, according to DRBC, there is less of a summertime drop in DO levels and the current standard is met much of the time. Shad can now run in the spring to spawn, without being blocked by a low-oxygen zone. However, achievement of the current DO standard is still only a milestone of progress, and not the final goal; protection of aquatic life may require additional protective criteria. Regardless, everyone involved in bringing this great turnaround deserves recognition. The Delaware River waterfront now attracts many visitors to it every year – a huge benefit to local businesses. In fact, the University of Delaware estimated the economic benefit of a healthy Delaware River to be over $10 billion a year.

There is less of a summertime drop in DO levels near the Ben Franklin Bridge and the current standard is met much of the time. Graphic courtesy of DRBC.

There is less of a summertime drop in DO levels near the Ben Franklin Bridge, (Philadelphia to New Jersey), and the current standard is met much of the time. Graphic courtesy of DRBC.

There is progress on another front, too: legacy contaminants in river sediments. Legacy contaminants, such as PCBs are remnants of past activities that remain in the environment and affect fish health. While they last for a long time, DRBC reports that PCB loadings are down significantly and a fish consumption advisory in Delaware was eased in late 2013.

The Delaware River is improving, but the job is far from done. In some ways, the job may be getting harder as we deal with new types of contaminants. Recognizing progress as it happens, without the constraints of a pass-fail approach, is a win for everyone: watershed groups gain support for their efforts and public and private groups realize early returns on their investments as water quality improves.


About the author: Jon Capacasa is the Director of the Water Protection Division in EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region.



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