Most U.S. Waters Are Polluted and Getting Dirtier

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Most U.S. Waters Are Polluted and Getting Dirtier

EPA Figures Show Grim Pollution Realities on 40th Anniversary of Clean Water Act

Washington, DC — Hurricane Sandy has generated sewage overflows and storm-water run-off that is transforming many Eastern Seaboard waters into toxic soup, too hazardous to even touch. But many of these waters were already profoundly polluted, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) figures reposted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The Clean Water Act was signed into law forty years ago on October 18, 1972. This year, EPA released a new database (called “How’s My Waterway?”) displaying the conditions of streams, lakes, estuaries, wetlands and other water-bodies across the country. These overall figures are distressing:

  • More than three-quarters (81%) of U.S. coastal waters are impaired, as are two-thirds (66%) of our bays and estuaries and more than half (51%) of near coastal ocean waters;
  • More than two-thirds (69%) of our lakes, reservoirs and ponds are impaired as are virtually all of the Great Lakes shorelines (98%) and waters (100%); and
  • More than four-fifths (84%) of the nation’s wetlands are also impaired.

The best results recorded by EPA were still pretty dismal: less than half (46%) of rivers and streams are in “good shape,” meaning they fully support their designated uses. However, these EPA numbers are likely dramatic underestimates because:

  • The EPA figures are based on “assessed” waters but only 27% of rivers and streams, for example, have been assessed as have only 1% of wetlands;
  • Reporting states often skew the methodology of assessments to mask problems; and
  • Figures do not include many of the new, emerging chemicals, many of which are damaging to aquatic life but for which there are no pollution standards.

“After 40 years of the Clean Water Act, our rivers may look better and may be less likely to catch on fire but the true quality of our waters may be regressing,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, referring to Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire in 1969, an incident which helped spark enactment of national water pollution controls. “The Clean Water Act’s promise that our waters be drinkable, swimmable and fishable remains largely unfulfilled.”

In fact, the EPA figures show clean water progress has slowed during the Obama term. In 2008, there were 339 previously impaired waters which were restored to their intended uses but only 109 water-bodies were restored in 2012. Similarly, in 2008 agencies addressed 420 causes of water-body impairment but by 2012 that number had fallen to 255.

“Environmental issues have been largely absent from this presidential campaign but environmental events, from the BP Gulf spill to Super-storm Sandy, show how key the environment is to our economic as well as our public health,” Ruch added. “Water quality is a vital component of American infrastructure and we disinvest in it at our peril.”


See the EPA cumulative numbers by water type

Look at the entire EPA water quality database

Read about the games states play with water assessments

Examine a questionable state non-impairment call

View growing threat from pharmaceuticals and other emerging chemicals in our waters

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