The Clean Water Act: Its Beginnings in the Mississippi River

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

Isabelle Bienen is a junior at Northwestern University studying Social Policy with minors in Environmental Policy & Culture and Legal Studies. The focus of her NWNL research and blog series this summer is on the U.S. Clean Water Act: its history, purpose and status today. The subject of this first blog in her series is on its creation and potential to solve issues in our Mississippi River Basin case study watershed.

Jones_111029_LA_1225.jpgCypress Island Preserve swamp, Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana 

Introduction

The Clean Water Act was created by the U. S. Congress to ensure that those in the U.S. have access to safe drinking water. This blog series will highlight the threats that spurred the creation of this act (citing specific issues in NWNL case-study watersheds); a definition of its regulations; and an analysis of its implementation and implications. Below is the first post in this series which outlines how this Act came to be. It continues to specifically depict existing threats in the Mississippi River Basin (a NWNL case study watershed) that helped shape the Act and those that are addressed in the Act. The second blog in this series will detail existing threats and those addressed by the Act that are in the other 2 NWNL North American case study watersheds: the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Basin, and New Jersey’s Raritan River Basin.  The third blog will discuss general health threats across the U.S. that also clearly highlighted the need for the Clean Water Act.

Jones_121021_TX_5758.jpgSign at The National Ranching Heritage Center, Red River Basin, Texas 

The Birth of the CWA

The Clean Water Act was adopted in 1972 due to an overwhelming response from local governments, state officials and the general public over their growing dismay for poor water quality. The alarm prompted by photographs of a 1969 Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland, Ohio, is often considered the tipping point for the creation of this Act. An investigation conducted that year by Cleveland’s Bureau of Industrial Wastes stated that the fire was caused from “highly volatile petroleum”1 with a “low flash point at the end of the railroad trestle bridges.”1 The flames were recounted to have climbed as high as five stories. The previous year, Cleveland residents passed a $100 million bond issue to finance river protection and cleanup efforts, yet there was no success due to a lack of any government controls to protect the environment. This grave situation indicated the need for federally-implemented water protection, as the Clean Water Act eventually would provide.

Jones_111021_LA_7703.jpgDredge water samples collected from Mississippi River, National Audubon, Louisiana

The Mississippi River Basin’s Clean Water Issues

The Mississippi River Basin drains into 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces, supporting 60% of North American birds and 25% of North American fish.2 Nonpoint sources of pollution from the basin’s manufacturing, urbanization, timber harvests and hydrologic modifications have contributed to water contamination by PCB’s, DDT and fecal bacteria. A buildup of excess nutrients spurring algae growth and producing dead zones comes from nitrogen and phosphorus used in crop fertilization. The many locks and dams along the length of the Mississippi River have caused the loss of natural filtration of pollutants by coastal wetlands.3 This body of water was completely unregulated for pollutants, causing a wide range of problems that greatly impacted marine life and the surrounding environment.

Jones_140907_LA_0752-2.jpgIndustrial site on coastal wetlands south of New Orleans, Louisiana

One of the biggest problems in the Mississippi River Basin is the nonpoint source runoff of agricultural chemicals that feed algae blooms which creates large hypoxic dead zones. These dead zones emerge from the Mississippi River Delta and flow into the Gulf of Mexico, reportedly covering around 6,000 to 7,000 square miles from the inner and mid-continental shelf and westward into the upper Texas coast.4 This hypoxia has killed and displaced a variety of marine species, and the freshwater species depend on these displaced resources.5 Still, today, agricultural runoff from midwestern farms flows into the Gulf. Due to steadily increasing levels of flooding since the 1930’s, as well as an increase in the amount of paved surfaces in these areas, greater amounts of synthetic fertilizers, animal waste and other nutrient pollution are running off into these waters at an accelerated rate.5 According to Mother Nature Network, “The biggest overall contributor to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is the entire Mississippi River Basin, which pumps an estimated 1.7 billion tons of excess nutrients into Gulf waters each year, causing an annual algal feeding frenzy.”5

Jones_130522_IA_3270.jpgLock & dam system, Port of Dubuque, Iowa

Additionally, point-source pollution from a high number of petrochemical plants between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has negatively impacted the Lower Mississippi River and Delta. This stretch of the Mississippi River is known as “Cancer Alley” due to numerous reported cases of cancer occurring in small rural communities along the river.6 In 2002, the State of Louisiana reported the second highest numbers of deaths caused by cancer in the United States. The national average death-from-cancer rate is about 206 per 100,000; while Louisiana’s rate is ten times that at  237.3 deaths per 100,000.6

The Mississippi River Basin, prior to the CWA, is clearly in need of regulation as highlighted through the condition of this water system. The following blog post will further discuss the status of NWNL River Basins prior to the CWA – specifically in the Columbia River Basin and the Raritan River Basin.

Jones_111024_LA_8716.jpgBridge over Henderson Swamp, Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana 

Citations:

  1. John H. Hartig, “Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught on Fire.” Burlington: Ecovision World Monograph Series, Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society, 2010.
  2. No Water No Life, accessed 6/19/18, published 2017, IKB.
  3. The National Academy of Sciences, accessed 6/19/18, published 2007, IKB.
  4. Microbial Life; Educational Resources, accessed 7/10/18, published 2018, IKB.
  5. Mother Nature Network, accessed 7/11/18, published 2011, IKB.
  6. Pollution Issues, accessed 7/11/18, published 2006, IKB.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

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