Recognizing the Clean Water Act’s 35th year of Failure

By Heather Fenyk, LRWP President and Founder

We are just a few days shy of July 1, 2018, which marks the 35th anniversary of the Clean Water Act’s failure to meet it’s “fishable-swimable” goals for our nation’s waters. What does this mean for New Jersey’s waters? The most recent published report (2014) on New Jersey’s water quality tells us that only 16% of our waters fully support general aquatic life. That is, the vast majority of our waterways are not clean enough for drinking water, aquatic life, fish consumption, or even recreation.

The Clean Water Act was about more than the protection of recreation, and fish and wildlife propagation. It was an “interim goal of water quality” intended to lead to “fishable and swimmable” waters by July 1, 1983, and to “the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.” But more than a third of a century later the quality of our waterways, especially waters in our urban and historically impacted areas, are far from meeting fishable and swimmable goals.

Why? Because existing laws don’t ban pollution. They allow for polluters and developers to secure permits to pollute. The Clean Water Act is especially weak in terms of regulating the number one source of pollution in our national (and notably our New Jersey) waterways: stormwater.

Urban non-profit environmental organizations, like the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership that I run, go about the daily work of advocating for local watershed management strategies like stormwater utilities and Green Infrastructure to address the water quality and quantity problems in our watersheds. And state-wide collaborative efforts like Jersey Water Works are making tremendous strides to transform New Jersey’s water and wastewater treatment and delivery infrastructure. But without a wholesale shift in thinking around pollution in our waterways, our local waters will never meet the “fishable, swimmable” goals as set out by the CWA, no matter how many Combined Sewers we take off line, or how many rain barrels and rain gardens we install.

What else should be on our radar? How should we be rethinking water pollution policy in New Jersey? On the anniversary of the 35th year of the failure of the CWA to meet it’s goals, we offer you our top 10 ideas for effective change:

  1. Fund major research and development for innovative water treatment and water quality monitoring technologies;
  2. Offer economic incentives to polluters who perform beyond the minimum requirements of the law;
  3. Add public health objectives to our water pollution control laws;
  4. Prioritize clean-up and restoration of polluted waterways, especially in our economically disadvantaged communities;
  5. Establish new target dates for achieving fishable, swimmable waters in New Jersey;
  6. Establish target dates for completely eliminating the discharge of pollutants in our waterways;
  7. Develop real-time monitoring technologies that protect water consumers and recreational users;
  8. Increase enforcement of existing laws;
  9. Establish mandatory monitoring for emerging pollutants including micro-plastics, pharmaceuticals and hormones;
  10. Develop a central repository for information and resource sharing on best management practices in the state.

We welcome comments, additions and suggestions. Email us to share yours: info@lowerraritanwatershed.org

Active CSO Discharge, Perth Amboy – photo credit: Raritan Riverkeeper Bill Schultz

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