For Clean Water – Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act (Part 1)

For Clean Water – Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act (Part 1)

By Save The Bay’s Waterkeepers

This article originally appeared in the spring 2022 edition of Tides Magazine.

Narragansett Bay’s transformation from an open sewer to the healthier Bay of today is no accident. It is a decades-long achievement earned by dedicated people demanding action by their government. It is also an achievement built on the foundation of a landmark federal law: the Clean Water Act. This year, we celebrate the Clean Water Act’s 50th Anniversary, and the many ways it’s helped improve Narragansett Bay.

Creating the Clean Water Act

In Rhode Island, efforts to enact laws protecting local waters from pollution date back to as early as 1920, when the “Of the Pollution of the Waters of the State” act created a Board of Purification of Waters. While the Board had the authority to regulate water pollution—even bringing the Town of East Providence to court over the 270,000 gallons of raw sewage it was jettisoning into the Seekonk River daily—federal legislation spurred the action needed to support the next era of water protection.

Polluted water dumping into Bay
Prior to the Clean Water Act, disposal of dyes and other waste products into nearby waters was common practice by local industry.

The Clean Water Act was the culmination of more than six decades of laws aimed at protecting the nation’s waters: the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, and the Water Quality Act of 1965. Together, these laws set clean water standards and established funding sources for wastewater plant construction and sewage treatment.

Despite these noble first attempts at protecting United States waters, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, environmental stories—from a massive fish kill in Florida to the Cuyahoga River catching fire in Ohio-—were making headlines across the nation. Locally, raw sewage overflows made Upper Narragansett Bay and Mount Hope Bay off-limits to shellfishing and direct contact with the water unsafe. With the advent of the first-ever Earth Day protest and celebration in 1970, the people had their eyes on environmental health.

In 1972, Congress made major amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, including changing its name to the Clean Water Act. With the new Act came a bold goal: to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of our nation’s waters.

Identifying & Addressing

To meet the goals outlined in the Clean Water Act, states are required to develop water quality standards that form a basis for controlling water pollution. These standards must be sufficient to “protect the public health or welfare, enhance the quality of water and serve the purposes of” the Clean Water Act. The states are also responsible for identifying the “designated uses” of their waters (for example, recreational use, fishing, or scenic enjoyment), and managing a list of waters that are too impaired for their designated uses.

No shellfishing sign
Fishing and shellfishing are examples of possible “designated uses” of certain waterways. When water quality standards drop below what is allowed for those uses, the waterway is flagged as “impaired.”

In Rhode Island, these state responsibilities—along with the enforcement and implementation of all Clean Water Act programs—are managed by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Once every two years, RIDEM issues a report on the state of Rhode Island’s waters. In the report, the agency identifies waterbodies that are not meeting water quality standards, the source of their contamination, and a plan to restore them to attain the designated uses. Save The Bay anticipates these reports and usually recommends steps to improve certain waterbodies, although many remain unassessed.

Capping Point Source Pollution

The Clean Water Act focuses on two potential pollution sources: point and nonpoint. Under the Act, point source (think: waste pipes emptying into a river) discharges can only happen within parameters determined by a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. These permits control what can and cannot be discharged into a waterway to avoid degrading water quality or preventing the waterway from being used as designated.

In the 1970s, point source discharges from local industry and wastewater treatment facilities were the primary pollutants affecting the Bay. The Act put an end to the convenient industrial practice of dumping waste products in local rivers, and set a new standard requiring wastewater treatment facilities to use the “best available technology” to ensure their discharges are in compliance with the law. Today, local rivers no longer run red and orange with discarded dyes from factories. Upper Bay wastewater treatment plants have reduced the bacteria, nitrogen, and other pollutants that historically caused water quality problems in Narragansett Bay. In the last 15 years, treatment plant-based nitrogen pollution—a key contributor to algae growth that robs Bay waters
of oxygen when it decomposes—has decreased by more than 50 percent.

Wastewater treatment plant in black and white
The Clean Water Act gave Save The Bay and other vocal environmental advocates the tools they needed to file a lawsuit against the City of Providence over its ailing Fields Point wastewater treatment plant.

NPDES permits can tell us a lot about how pollution in Narragansett Bay is being prevented. Since permit renewals present an opportunity to advocate for increased water quality protections, Save The Bay reviews all Rhode Island NPDES permits and renewals, as well as Massachusetts permits relating to Bay tributaries. In Rhode Island, we submit comments and recommendations to RIDEM; in Massachusetts, we submit them directly to the EPA, since they implement the Clean Water Act in the Commonwealth. In the past decade, Save The Bay has strongly advocated for permits to lower nitrogen limits.

Once untouchable river and Bay waters are now teeming with marine life and people fishing, paddling, and boating. Thousands of acres of shellfish beds have been reopened to harvest. Beaches in the Upper Bay are much cleaner and safer… most of the time. Point source pollution management alone has spurred spectacular restoration, but many waterways remain unsafe for recreational activities, fish harvest, or the species that live in the Bay.

Read part 2 of this blog series HERE.

Learn more about Save The Bay’s efforts to improve water quality in Narragansett Bay.

Do you believe in protecting and improving Narragansett Bay? Be a part of the effort by becoming a Save The Bay member today!