SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  20 December 2012
Volume 13 Issue 12

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SETAC Long Beach Special Session Explored Successes and Remaining Needs upon the 40th Anniversary of the United States’ Clean Water Act

Karen Setty, Southern California Coastal Water Research Project

Appropriately, the early Monday morning hours opening the SETAC North America Long Beach meeting were dedicated to reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. As the foggy marine layer cleared outside the convention center, the minds of students, scientists and professionals focused on what has changed in the past four decades, where we currently stand and how the synthesis of this historical knowledge can be applied to the path ahead. Six presentations gave perspective on trends in pollution levels and sources, beach water quality, fish tissue contamination and ecosystem health. Attendees were asked to examine from their perspective whether the Clean Water Act had truly been successful and what barriers remain to meeting future challenges. One discussion period opened the door to thought-provoking consideration of the Clean Water Act’s financial costs and benefits and its regional and international impacts, while a second discussion dealt with working across sectors.

Although the Clean Water Act has been wildly successful at addressing some of the headline water pollution issues from the 1970s, such as DDT-induced eggshell thinning in the brown pelican population, it has had tempered success in other arenas. Karen Setty and John Griffith shared the results of a recent 40-year synthesis report from the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project showing that, with levels of targeted pollutants from point source discharges driven down, significant progress has been seen in terms of fish disease, fish tissue contamination, fish and invertebrate community integrity, endangered bird populations and recreational water quality impairments. The original Clean Water Act goals of swimmability, fishability and ecosystem protection have become a reality in many once-polluted waterways. Whether due to other pollution sources or ecological stressors, though, some indicators continue to reflect the effects of human activities.

In addition, some new issues, less than fathomable when the legislation was originally passed, now raise concerns across the water quality management community. From a point source discharger perspective offered by Gerald McGowen of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation Environmental Monitoring Division, contaminants of emerging concern (contaminants not traditionally monitored in discharges, aka CECs) were cited as a major challenge. Numerous different CECs can be present in low levels in water and have subtle toxic effects (e.g., on gene expression) that are difficult to measure. Ocean acidification is another modern challenge to water quality management efforts where a pollutant (CO2) with ubiquitous global sources cannot be controlled by regional measures or even one nation’s legislation alone. A similar degree of difficulty lies in addressing fish consumption restrictions related to extensive moderate mercury contamination coming from diffuse sources.

The speakers and audience members universally agreed nonpoint source pollution is one of the biggest future challenges facing environmental scientists and managers. Nonpoint sources have received far less attention and federal funding over the last 40 years and the country-wide financial outlook remains stark. All sectors, especially students, were still feeling the effects of a weak economy in recent years. When asked if nonpoint sources represent a solvable problem or something that simply requires more money than we have, though, the group expressed optimism. Traditional engineering solutions have gotten us to the point where today, many targeted pollutants have been reduced by a large percentage; still, other “soft” solutions including education and low-technology best management practices (BMPs) hold a great deal of promise. One excellent example from the audience was dissemination of a manual to farmers detailing the best-performing BMPs specific to individual crops. Others were low-flow diversions that treat small amounts of dry weather runoff in southern California or water infiltration mechanisms in beach communities in the southeastern US, both of which have had positive effects on beach water quality.

Spreading the financial burden from one central government entity to the thousands of small farmers, urban centers and other nonpoint source contributors is not only a cost-effective move, but also a timely one. Since point-source discharges have largely been addressed in the US, the problematic water polluters are no longer just those who dump toxic chemicals and sewage straight into waterways. They can better be characterized as all of us, including every person who used a car or plane to travel to the SETAC North America annual meeting. The audience felt most people want to do the right thing for the nation’s waterways and can and will take small steps to get there. Hence, the discussion lent itself more to “carrot” approaches than legislative “sticks.” Working collectively, the cost per person may go up slightly for decentralized clean water solutions, but not to the degree that centralized solutions would burden the country’s pocketbook.

The discussion also elicited differences among US regions and other nations. One meeting attendee from New York City pointed out old sewage infrastructure and combined sewer overflows that represent a future financial burden are more commonly encountered on the East Coast and this weakness was especially evident in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. From a federal perspective brought by an attendee from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act is still frequently being used as a model for legislation in other nations, such as those in Eastern Europe. It is currently being closely looked at by China as the nation’s development rushes ahead of its environmental statutes. The Clean Water Act is certainly still relevant to water pollution control in the US and can be built upon to address new issues in the same way the 1987 amendments refocused attention on large municipal stormwater discharges.

As evidenced by Matt Luxon's talk on the Puget Sound, cooperation among the many different groups working in parallel to protect waterways is an important first step to meeting clean water challenges in the face of limited resources. SETAC is an example of the type of forum that brings people within realms of overlapping interest together to promote information exchange and stimulate new ideas. Beyond the tradition of multi-sector knowledge sharing and scientific development that takes place within SETAC meetings and Pellston Workshops, universities were suggested as another neutral ground and one of the most important hubs for interaction across sectors. As one example, corporations that in the past were at odds with environmental protection efforts are now taking the reigns on novel environmental stewardship approaches and have a great opportunity to find creative talent in students. Students in turn can exercise their knowledge on real-world problems brought forth by corporate and government agency partnerships.

While the Clean Water Act can clearly celebrate successes over the last forty years, the trajectory of water quality over the next four decades is uncertain. Jay Davis, a scientist from the San Francisco Estuary Institute, showed a graphic illustrating the state of the San Francisco Bay over time from the years before European settlement. While he liked to think the arrow would point up in the future, he also recognized ample reasons to think it might continue downward. Others agreed. Marc Verhougstraete from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill cleverly contrasted case studies showing how reactive and proactive approaches to managing contaminated runoff made a big difference in resulting beach water quality. Continued conversations and cooperation among dischargers, regulators, scientists and others, like that begun at the SETAC North America Long Beach meeting, will be necessary to meeting the challenges lying ahead.

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