We have made great strides in cleaning up our rivers, lakes and beaches over the last 25 years, but we still have a long way to go. Today, more than one-third of our waters are not safe for swimming or fishing.
Making a commitment to a strong Clean Water Act is everyone's responsibility. Below are six principles to follow for a meaningful and effective Clean Water Act.
1. We must clean up and prevent toxic water pollution - including polluted runoff - that threatens the health of our families. Millions of pounds of dangerous pollution and toxic chemicals legally are dumped into our rivers, lakes and coastal waters each year. Each time it rains, water runs off the land and picks up toxic pesticides and fertilizers from farm fields and lawns, heavy metals and oils from cars and trucks, manure from animal feedlots, poisonous chemicals and metals from mining sites, and sediment from construction sites, farms and timber operations. This polluted runoff carries these contaminants into our drinking, fishing and swimming waters.
To end this toxic contamination and polluted runoff, the Clean Water Act should require individuals, government and industry to work together in a number of ways to:
- Establish an enforceable national system to prevent polluted runoff from cities, suburbs, farms, mining and timber operations from going into our rivers, lakes and estuaries.
- Identify the sources of water contamination and stop the pollution of our rivers, lakes and coastal waters with chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects, fertility problems or learning problems in children or whose health effects are not yet known. This means no longer allowing industry to dump toxic pollutants linked to increased rates of cancer and other health problems.
- Clean up toxic sediments at the bottom of rivers and lakes that have accumulated through years of pollution and ensure that clean sediments do not become contaminated.
- Require factory farms to stop contaminating our rivers, lakes and coastal waters with animal waste.
- Protect and restore our precious wetlands so that they can filter out harmful pollution before it ever reaches our drinking water, rivers, lakes or beaches.
2. Americans have a right to know whether our water is safe for drinking, fishing or swimming. American waters often are so polluted with toxic chemicals and bacteria that using these waters for drinking or swimming or eating fish caught in them can be dangerous and even life threatening. Yet, in most places, we are not told about the degree of water contamination and we are unable to protect ourselves and our families. Everyone deserves to be protected, especially those at greatest risk such as pregnant women, young children and those who must fish to put food on the table. Therefore, we need a stronger Clean Water Act that will:
- Create uniform standards for monitoring and testing beach waters and fish for contamination.
- Create a simple-to-understand national system to warn the public when waters, beaches or fish contain dangerous levels of contamination that can be harmful to health. The information about water pollution and possible health impacts needs to be posted in English and other languages of the communities affected by the pollution.
- Inform communities about polluters who have violated clean water laws, and about where pollution is being released, in order to raise public awareness and help people stay clear of polluted waterways. Notify people about plans to alter or destroy wetlands in their communities so residents can protect their homes from flooding and take steps to prevent water pollution.
3. We must save America's wetlands because they can clean our drinking water, help filter pollution out of our waterways, protect our communities from floods and sustain fish and wildlife.
Wetlands are one of nature's tools for cleaning our water. They also provide crucial habitat for fish and wildlife and protect us from floods by acting as sponges, soaking up water from storms and releasing it slowly over time. But America already has lost half of the wetlands in the lower 48 states, and we cannot afford to destroy many more. Although the Clean Water Act has helped reduce wetlands destruction, the Army Corps of Engineers continues to permit the destruction of close to 100,000 acres of wetlands a year through loopholes and lack of enforcement of the law. This must be changed.
A stronger Clean Water Act must:
- Stop the unnecessary destruction of wetlands and restore the ones we already have destroyed.
- Ensure that agreements to lessen the damage to wetlands are enforced and that wetlands are restored nearby in the watershed when wetlands destruction cannot be avoided.
- Stop the abuse of the permit system which is allowing thousands of acres of wetlands to be destroyed each year without adequate public notice or public review.
- Initiate a system to let the public know how many wetlands are being destroyed in their communities by activities permitted by the Army Corps of Engineers.
- Affirm the citizens' right to bring citizens suits to protect wetlands in their communities.
- Prevent the draining of wetlands, which is as destructive as filling them, but is now allowed under a loophole in the current law.
- Make sure that the Army Corps of Engineers considers the cumulative impacts of wetlands loss on communities when issuing permits.
4. We have a responsibility to protect America's lakes, rivers and estuaries for future generations. More than one-third of our rivers, lakes and estuaries are not safe for swimming and fishing, and not able to provide a healthy habitat for fish and other water-dependent wildlife. Some of our most beautiful wilderness rivers and lakes in national parks and other unspoiled public lands are at risk of pollution from the impacts of ranching (overgrazing and stream bank destruction), logging and mining too close to waterways.
Our coastal estuaries are home to many of the fish and wildlife that make America special, and they offer us beaches that provide welcome relief on hot summer days. Yet, these coastal areas contain some of the most polluted waters in America because they collect all the pollution that gets washed downstream. The health of these waters is not only critical to our enjoyment of nature but to the fishing industry, which has been badly hurt by polluted waters. The decline of America's commercial and recreational fishing industry hurts our economy and our way of life.
To protect America's water resources for our children and to save jobs and communities that rely on clean waterways, we need a strong Clean Water Act that will:
- Make sure that the beautiful rivers, lakes and coastal waters in our national parks and other wild places receive special status as Outstanding Natural Resource Waters so that they stay clean.
- Provide extra funding and program coordination to help people restore critical waterways such as the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River basin, the Chesapeake Bay and others.
- Ensure that plans to protect and restore estuaries of national significance from pollution and loss of habitat are carried out.
- Prevent any additional pollution from going into the rivers, lakes and streams that are outside our parks where we fish and swim today.
5. We must enforce environmental laws more effectively to stop illegal pollution and make polluters pay to clean up their mess.
One in five major industrial or sewage treatment facilities seriously and repeatedly violates the water pollution laws-and these polluters profit from their illegal actions. And the Federal government, whom we count on to protect us from pollution, is a major polluter itself at many of its military installations and on public lands where grazing and logging are not properly managed.
To end the problem of illegal and sometimes profitable pollution, we need the Clean Water Act to:
- Strengthen law enforcement efforts to catch illegal polluters and to deny them profits from their wrongdoing.
- Hold the Federal government to the same standards as everyone else when it violates the law.
- Protect the rights of Americans who are harmed by water pollution to sue polluters to get their rivers cleaned up at the polluter's expense and to stop future pollution.
6. We must spend what is necessary for clean water. We must have clean water to live in a healthy America. While cleaning up pollution can be expensive, contaminated water itself is costly. In fact, we lose billions of dollars each year because of water pollution - lost tourist dollars when pollution closes beaches, lost jobs when fishing areas collapse due to destroyed wetlands habitat and pollution, lost port revenues when needed dredging must be halted due to contaminated harbor sediments, and lost wages and sometimes lost lives due to illness and death caused by Americans drinking contaminated tap water, swimming in contaminated water and eating contaminated fish. And we cannot put a dollar value on the priceless value of knowing that our children's drinking water is safe.
Yet, despite the enormous human and financial costs of water pollution we have not committed the dollars necessary to get the anti-pollution job done right. Federal funding to clean up pollution is inadequate and, especially in smaller and poorer communities, clean water will remain a distant dream unless we increase our commitment.
To get the job done right, we need to:
- Increase the Federal government's support for helping local communities build and renovate sewage treatment plants and sewer systems and fund state and local efforts to stop polluted runoff, including urban storm water runoff programs.
- Create a significant new source of funding for water pollution prevention, clean up and
enforcement by creating a "polluter pays" fund that shifts some of the burden from taxpayers to the polluters.
- Strengthen the partnership between Federal, State and local governments and communities to restore degraded estuaries, wetlands and urban waterways.
- Increase federal support for both citizen and State Water Quality monitoring programs, so we will be able to measure our progress and target future efforts to the most pressing problems.
Each of us has a right to clean, safe water for drinking, fishing and swimming. Each of us has a responsibility to do our share to prevent water pollution and wetlands destruction to ensure healthy rivers, lakes and coasts for future generations. We need to recommit ourselves to the clean water challenge and renew our efforts to meet the Clean Water Act's original goal of clean, safe water that supports healthy, abundant fish and wildlife for us and our children to enjoy.