For Clean Water – Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act (Part 2)

For Clean Water – Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act (Part 2)

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. You can read Part 1 to this blog series here.

Wrangling Nonpoint Source Pollution

pollution around a storm drain
When it rains, the stormwater flushes contaminants—animal waste, fertilizer, petroleum—into local waterways. This kind of pollution is referred to as “nonpoint source pollution.”

It’s one thing to control sewage and industrial waste coming from pipes—but what about all the fertilizers, petroleum, pet and livestock waste, and litter that accumulate on land, then get flushed into local waterways during rainstorms?

This is what is referred to as “nonpoint source pollution,” and is believed to be the primary reason for impaired water quality in the Narragansett Bay watershed today. It’s why the ponds in Roger Williams Park and the drinking water supplies on Aquidneck Island are clouded with dangerous
blue-green algae known as “cyanobacteria,” and why Greenwich Bay beaches are sometimes closed to swimming after rainstorms.

Under the Clean Water Act, known non-point discharges—including the networks of pipes and catch basins that redirect stormwater into local waterways—are governed by stormwater regulations. When a state agency or city violates those regulations, RIDEM and the EPA have the authority to step in—like when the EPA ordered the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to develop a long-term strategy to correct chronic stormwater pollution in 2015. After decades of neglect, RIDOT is now implementing a corrective plan for the state’s stormwater infrastructure.

pollution sign on tree near body of water
Polluted stormwater runoff remains one of the biggest pollution challenges of our day. Evidence can be seen in pollution across the watershed, including in the Roger Williams Park ponds.

Save The Bay partners with cities and towns to identify the strategies and funding needed to reduce stormwater pollution, but because it stems from every square foot of land in the watershed, it remains a pernicious challenge. Communities need more resources to manage stormwater flow and pollution. Farmers need help implementing measures to keep animal waste and fertilizers out of streams. And, in coastal areas, sea level rise is driving saltwater into stormwater pipes and catch basins, presenting new engineering challenges. Even with the Clean Water Act, additional funds are desperately needed, especially in Rhode Island, to enforce the Act and mitigate ongoing pollution.

Empowering Environmental Advocates

One element of the Clean Water Act stands alone for its ability to empower environmental advocates. Section 505(a), or the Citizen Suit Provision, gives citizens the right to sue those violating the Clean Water Act, empowering individuals and organizations to enforce the Act themselves.

The provision is a powerful tool for environmental advocates everywhere, and can lead to significant action from the federal government. Using the Citizen Suit Provision, Save The Bay participated in a 1979 lawsuit against the City of Providence over the city’s ailing Fields Point wastewater treatment facility. As a result, the facility, which had been cited as one of the worst in the country, was turned over to the newly-created, quasi-public Narragansett Bay Commission, which has earned national awards for its contributions to the cleanup of the Upper Bay.

The Enduring Value of the Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act is a living, breathing document. Since its creation, it has undergone many changes, from evolving funding sources in the 1980s to dramatic shifts in, and challenges to, the definition of what constitutes the “Waters of the United States”  right up to present day.

While times—and pollution impacts—have changed drastically since the Act was first penned, our need for it has not waned. As climate change threatens wastewater treatment plants with increased flooding and accelerated sea level rise, and aging stormwater infrastructure demands expensive repairs and reengineering, we need the Clean Water Act now more than ever. It represents, not only the most important pieces of federal environmental legislation to date, but also the foundation we need to protect Narragansett Bay today and in the future.

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!