“Water is our most precious resource. Clean, healthy water supports life. It protects ecosystems and ensures the essential diversity of plants and wildlife. It nourishes our planet.”
It was the summer of ‘69. The summer of Woodstock, Apollo 11, Abbey Road, and the Miracle Mets. It was also the summer the polluted, oil-slimed Cuyahoga River caught fire. The blaze stoked a nation’s fury and galvanized the nascent environmental movement across America.
The river connecting Lake Erie to Cleveland, Ohio had become so polluted that by June of ‘69 it looked and smelled like an open, flowing septic tank. The Cuyahoga was a toxic dumping ground; a noxious stew of industrial waste and discarded junk; a grotesque monument to carelessness and neglect.
The river was so contaminated that few were surprised when an oil slick ignited on the water's surface, sending flames shooting five stories into the air and setting two railroad trestles ablaze. It marked the 13th time the river had caught fire. It wasn’t even the biggest, most spectacular blaze out of the 13 that had erupted on the Cuyahoga since the 1800s, but it was the one that had the deepest, most meaningful impact.
Public anger over the Cuyahoga’s condition and pollution in nearby Lake Erie rose to a boiling point that summer. It marked a turning point, helping to fuel a new era in environmental protection. The outrage led to the creation of the EPA and the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. It inspired the first Earth Day. And it energized Americans to embrace the environmental movement and demand action to protect the planet.
Fifty years later, the Clean Water Act is credited with bringing America’s rivers, lakes, and streams back to life. It sets standards aimed at preventing and eliminating pollution in U.S. waterways. Its stated purpose is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.” The Clean Water Act has been hailed by environmentalists and championed by presidents and policymakers. But it is not enough.
Too many of America’s waterways are being poisoned by toxic algae, the dreaded pea green slime that is smothering water bodies from coast to coast. Caused by a rapid eruption in microscopic cyanobacteria, algal blooms are choking aquatic ecosystems, sucking up oxygen, killing fish, and producing toxins that pose a danger to people and pets; putting drinking water supplies at risk, damaging local economies, and threatening livelihoods.
This pernicious menace is growing and getting worse with climate change. And it’s not getting enough attention. Or funding.
“There are real consequences to inaction,” said Eyal Harel, CEO, BlueGreen Water Technologies. “Our lakes and rivers are being choked by toxic algae. Cyanobacterial blooms are damaging sensitive ecosystems, rendering drinking water supplies unsafe. It is well past time to be concerned.”
To adequately address this threat, the U.S. needs a uniform, nationwide monitoring program overseen by a single federal agency. What exists now is a state-by-state patchwork of uneven, mostly voluntary reporting. NOAA’s harmful algal bloom tracking program is excellent, but it only covers certain problem areas.
“The Clean Water Act was enacted 50 years ago. It is time to pay attention, to step up the pace, and to finally get it done.”
A June 2022 GAO review of federal efforts to manage harmful algal blooms concluded a national program to guide these efforts is needed. In 1998,
NOAA and EPA created an interagency task force at the request of Congress to develop a plan for a comprehensive and coordinated response to harmful algal blooms. Yet after more than two decades of work, the nation still does not have the national program Congress mandated. What is the hold up?
“The Clean Water Act was enacted 50 years ago. It is time to pay attention, to step up the pace, and to finally get it done,” said Harel.
More than half a century after the fire on the Cuyahoga, the river is no longer the toxic cesspool it once was. The upper 25-mile stretch of the river has made a significant comeback and has earned status as an Ohio State Scenic River. But the other 75 miles still face challenges as one of the EPA’s 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern. Efforts are underway to improve habitat for fish and wildlife and to restore connecting streams and stabilize the shoreline to reduce erosion, and to finally clean up the Cuyahoga once and for all.
As Americans celebrate National Water Quality Month this August, let us remember the lessons of the past. Water is our most precious resource. Clean, healthy water supports life. It protects ecosystems and ensures the essential diversity of plants and wildlife. It nourishes our planet, and we must protect it.