Celebrate Earth Day: 50 Years of the Clean Water Act


By Bethany Canner
President, Swatara Watershed Association


April 22 is Earth Day!  About 70% of Earth is covered in water, giving it the “Blue Planet” moniker.  Clean water is essential for everyone.  It keeps our bodies healthy, our communities safe and our economy strong.

Fifty years ago, over two-thirds of the lakes, rivers and coastal waterways in the United States were unsafe for swimming and fishing.  Untreated sewage was routinely dumped into waterways, along with oil, trash and toxic chemicals from industries.  Some rivers caught on fire, not once, but repeatedly.  Others were declared so polluted that residents were advised to seek medical attention if they had prolonged contact with the water.  The federal government finally acknowledged that the status quo was unsustainable and decided change was necessary.

In 1972, The Federal Water Pollution Control Act was rewritten and amended, giving rise to the legislation commonly called The Clean Water Act.  Its objective was to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.  It gave authority to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers along with state, local and tribal governments, to regulate the dumping of pollutants into waterways by corporations, sewage plants and others.  It also provided a method to prosecute polluters and allocated funding for building public sewage treatment facilities.

Fifty years after the Clean Water Act was passed, its impacts are dramatic, as are its short-comings.  Overall, our water is cleaner.  It’s no longer common for untreated sewage to be dumped directly into the water as sewage treatment plants have been built and improved.  A study by UC Berkeley and Iowa State Universities found that, as of 2001, across the country “most of 25 water pollution measures showed improvement, including an increase in dissolved oxygen concentrations and a decrease in fecal coliform bacteria.” (report) However, due to a lack of funding, prioritization and other resources, many waterways have not been assessed and of the ones that have been assessed, a majority are impaired, having been found to be polluted enough to make them unsafe for swimming, drinking, fishing or other uses.

The Clean Water Act focused primarily on the obvious pollution, the often literal pipes pumping pollutants directly into the water. It succeeded in reining in, but not eliminating, this type of blatant dumping of toxins into our streams, called point source pollution.   What it did not address is the harder to notice forms of pollution.  These non-point source pollutants are those that are carried into our waterways every time it rains but can’t be traced back to a single source.  They include nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers applied to agricultural fields and lawns, sediment from construction sites and plowed fields, and chemicals from roadways and manufacturing sites, to name a few.  The Clean Water Act served as a starting point for cleaning up our water, but there is still a long way to go.  New legislation is needed to address the ongoing pollution still happening today.

The good news is that we don’t have to wait on the government to begin to make a difference in cleaning up our water.  There are many organizations right here in the Lebanon Valley that are working hard to keep our water clean.  These organizations educate and advise residents and local governments about ways they can reduce pollution.  They also plan and execute projects that keep pollution from entering our streams.

The Swatara Watershed Association’s (SWA, www.swatarawatershed.org) mission is Clean Water.  SWA is the trail manager for the Swatara Water Trail, the network of boating access points along the 60 mile length of the creek.  Getting in a boat or tube on the water connects you to the ecosystem of the creek.  You can see the bald eagles and herons, the mink and deer, the fish and eels, the turtles and snakes.  This connection makes you think about the importance of keeping this resource clean.  The hub of the water trail is Swatara Watershed Park, 1929 Blacks Bridge Rd, Annville, 17003. It is open to the public year round with a boat launch, walking trails and over 3000 feet of frontage on the Swatara Creek open for fishing.  Primitive camping is available May 1 – Oct 31.  You can join us on May 1st for the Swatara Sojourn, a guided trip from Swatara Watershed Park, to Boathouse Park in Hershey.  Help us clean up the creek along the way and learn more about protecting our streams.

SWA also is part of the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership which provides trees and shelters for use in reforesting areas along waterways and in towns and cities.  Trees planted along waterways (riparian buffers) hold the soil in place, slow down runoff and help to absorb excess nutrients and pollutants before they end up in the streams.  If you have a property that you would like to have evaluated for a possible planting, or are interested in learning about more ways that you can help make a difference in keeping our water clean, please contact us at info@swatarawatershed.org.

There are lots of ways that individuals can make a difference:

– Volunteer for a tree planting, litter pick up, etc

– Plant a rain garden to soak up stormwater

– Use a rain barrel to collect stormwater and use it for gardens

– Do a soil test before applying fertilizer to your lawn, better yet, don’t fertilize your lawn

– Convert part or all of your lawn into meadow or forest by planting native species

– Keep trash and chemicals out of storm drains


Lebanon Valley organizations helping to keep our water clean:

Swatara Watershed Association – www.swatarawatershed.org

Lebanon County Conservation District  – www.lccd.org

The Lebanon Valley Conservancy – www.lebanonvalleyconservancy.org

Quittapahilla Watershed Association – www.quittiecreek.org

Doc Fritchey Trout Unlimited – www.dftu.org

Penn State Master Watershed Stewards (Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon Counties) www.extension.psu.edu/programs/watershed-stewards/counties/dauphin-lebanon-and-lancaster-counties

Source: https://waterkeeper.org/

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