The Clean Water Act: Its Beginnings in the Columbia and Raritan Rivers

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)
All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise noted

Isabelle Bienen is Northwestern University junior studying Social and Environmental Policy & Culture and Legal Studies. As NWNL Summer Intern, she wrote a 5-blog series on the history, purpose and current status of the U.S. Clean Water Act [CWA] in NWNL’s three US case-study watersheds. Her 1st blog was CWA Beginnings in the Mississippi River Basin.

Jones_070708_OR_6995.jpgColumbia River, Astoria OR

Columbia River Basin

The Pacific North West’s Columbia River Basin empties more water into the Pacific Ocean than any other river in the Americas. Starting at its Canadian Rocky Mountains source, it runs for 1,243, collecting water from the U.S. states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah.1 The Columbia River is one of the most hydroelectric river systems in the world, with over 400 dams that provide power, irrigation and flood control.1 This river basin has positively impacted urban development, agriculture, transportation, fisheries and energy supplies across a significant swath of the western United States.

Jones_070628_OR_5171_M.jpgJuvenile fish bypass at the McNary Dam in Oregon

However large, unregulated industry in this watershed caused the Columbia River system to become severely polluted. Salmon populations were heavily affected by this pollution, especially when combined with the dams presenting migratory barriers to salmon going upstream from the ocean to cool, freshwater tributaries for spawning.  Before such the pollution and dam impacts Columbia Basin provided spawning habitat for one of the largest salmon runs in the world.1

The many indigenous Native Americans in this basin, including Colville, Wanapum, Yakama, Nez Perce, Chinook and other tribes, had relied on plentiful and healthy salmon populations as their primary source for food, trade, and general cultural use. The depletion of the salmon, below 10% of the population numbers before the hydro-dams, today severely impacts their cultural traditions and livelihoods.

Jones_110924_WA_6020-2.jpgMembers of the Chinook Nation at a Canoe Reparation Ceremony in Washington 

Additionally, pollutants in today’s remaining salmon are very dangerous to human health. It is estimated that members of Columbia Basin tribes eat about 2.2 pounds of fish daily. However, based on water quality issues, the Department of Health’s recommended limit for fish consumption is just one 7-ounce serving per month – ⅓ of their usual per day consumption .7

Jones_070627_WA_4800.jpgIrrigation wasteway carrying polluted water to Columbia River

Hanford Nuclear Site on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington poses another water quality concern for Columbia River Basin stakeholders. Hanford’s nine nuclear reactors “have produced 60% of the plutonium that fueled the US’s nuclear weapons arsenal, including plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.”2 These reactors are no longer operating; but their nuclear waste is stored here in leaking, single-cell tanks right on the Columbia River Basin.2 Groundwater containing remnants of radioactive waste from Hanford Nuclear Site still flows into the Columbia River, per an EPA project manager at a Hanford Advisory Board 2017 meeting.3

Jones_070625_WA_4429_M.jpgHanford Nuclear Site: Laboratory and Chemical Waste Storage Unit

Industrial pollution from the Portland Harbor Superfund Site was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List in December 2000, after years of contamination from industries in the Willamette River, a major tributary to the Lower Columbia River Basin and critical salmon and steelhead migratory corridor and nursery.4 The Portland Harbor Superfund Site is rife with PCB’s, PAH’s, dioxins, pesticides and heavy metals that are a health risk to humans and the environment. In January 2017 the EPA accepted a remedy for cleaning up Portland Harbor. By the end of the year, Dec. 2017, the EPA agreed to a Portland Harbor Baseline Sampling Plan.4

This 2017 cleanup is an example of usage of the Superfund Law, “a U. S. federally funded program used to clean up sites contaminated by hazardous pollutants.4  Cleanup of this harbor is beneficial to the international commerce on the Willamette River, which provides economic stability to many global communities. The river is also a migratory corridor and breeding habitat for salmon and steelhead trout, especially important for local tribes for natural and cultural purposes.4

Jones_070620_WA_0708.jpgMidnight Mine,WA: old uranium mine on Spokane River, now Superfund Site 

Being a transboundary river starting in Canada, the US reaches of the Columbia have been threatened by Canada’s Teck Cominco zinc smelting plant in Trail, Canada, right on the banks of the Columbia, just 12 miles upstream of the US-Canada border. Since 1896, Teck Cominco has dumped zinc slag and remnants of copper, gold, and other pollutants into the Columbia River and spewed toxins into the air that killed acres of upstream forests.

This Canadian Teck Cominco plant has polluted 12 miles of the Columbia River in Canada and many miles further downstream in the U.S.  Due to elevated lead counts in the blood of children eating salmon in Washington State, U.S. Native American tribes took Teck Cominco to the U.S. Supreme Court and won their case with a decision that demanded Teck Cominco reduce its large groundwater plume of toxins.5 Ultimately, a Washington state judge ruled that Teck Cominco is liable for contaminating the Columbia River and  responsible for funding its clean up.

Raritan River Basin

Jones_150511_NJ_0933.jpgColonial Era mill on South Fork of Raritan River, Clinton NJ

On the East Coast, the Raritan River Basin drains water from 6 New Jersey counties and 49 New Jersey municipalities, making it the largest watershed in the state, covering approximately 1,100 square miles.5 With approximately 1.5 million people living in the Raritan River Basin, New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation. This places intense pressure on the need to maintain both healthy and adequate supplies of fresh water.6  

In the mostly-rural Upper Raritan Basin, its North Branch and South Branch continue to provide a clean, fresh water habitat for endangered wild brook trout. However, this location now faces issues of nonpoint-source pollution from agricultural runoff via rainfall or snowmelt. The most common pollutants found in such runoffs include excess fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fecal matter, oil, grease and other toxic chemicals.8 Due to the many dairy farms in the Upper Raritan, runoff of pollutants – and especially fecal matter – flow downstream and impact the Lower Raritan River.  

Jones_090621_NJ_0979.jpgFish head washed onto bank of Raritan River in Perth Amboy NJ

Lower Raritan Basin polluting sources are different from Upper Raritan nonpoint sources. For centuries, high amounts of industrial waste have polluted the Raritan Bay and the Lower Raritan River, which forms at the confluence of the North Branch and South Branch of the Raritan. Since the Colonial Era, mills and factories lined this New York-Philadelphia water corridor, using the river for dumping their waste.

Additionally, today’s Lower Raritan River Basin is also heavily polluted by sewer discharge and more impermeable surfaces in increasingly-high densities of urban and suburban areas. In these highly built-up centers, sewn together with surfaces of concrete and cement, pollution is exacerbated by frequent flood-runoff and rainfall that is not absorbed into the soil. The increasing intensity of storms, attributed to climate change, worsens this problem.

Jones_090515_NJ_4550.jpgSpillway for runoff into Raritan River, New Brunswick, NJ

Lack of control in Combined Sewer Overflow points (CSO’s) is especially prevalent in Perth Amboy. Director of the Clean Water Division in EPA’s Region 2 states, “Combined sewer overflows are a very serious public health and environmental problem in a number of New Jersey’s communities….”9 CSO’s send diluted and untreated sewage water into the Raritan waterways.  Perth Amboy has over ten CSO locations. In 2012, the EPA took action against Perth Amboy in 2012 in regard to their lack of compliance with minimum controls of CSO’s causing pollution spikes in the Raritan River.9 In 2015, the Christie Administration announced a new permit system for NJ requiring CSO reduction plans and signage for residents at discharge points noting serious health effects of overflow fluids.  Of the 217 CFO’s in NJ addressed by the 25 new permits, 16 were Perth Amboy. This step has allowed much-needed infrastructure upgrades .9

15_0003b.jpgGraphics of a CSO (by NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection)

As of 2015, the Raritan River Basin had 20 federally registered Superfund sites and 200 state-registered toxic sites.9 Thus, marine life, recreation, commercial fishing businesses and much of New Jersey’s supply of clean fresh water were highly degraded by water pollution in the Raritan Basin. That year the EPA tracked about 137 pounds of toxic chemicals in the waters of the Raritan Basin’s Middlesex County alone.5 Overall, New Jersey releases about 4.7 million pounds of toxic chemicals into its waters. This represents the most toxins per square mile of water in the U.S.5

Jones_110522_NJ_9261.jpgFly-fishing for trout in the South Branch of the Upper Raritan River, Califon NJ

The threats outlined above taken together have impacted both the creation and implementation of the CWA in the Raritan River Basin. These Raritan River issues and those of the other 2 watersheds NWNL is documenting (See Blog 1 in this CWA Series), represent threats to waterways nationwide.  Pollution of all types still carries weight today in political and legislative decisions involving the Clean Water Act. Blog 3 in this series will focus on health threats addressed by the CWA that span the U.S. as a result of water pollution, thus further highlighting the need for water safety protection.

Sources:

  1. US Environmental Protection Agency, accessed 6/19/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  2. Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, accessed 7/11/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  3. Courthouse News, accessed 7/11/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  4. Environmental Protection Agency, accessed 7/11/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  5. The Sierra Club, accessed 7/19/18, published 2018, IKB, link. 
  6. Raritan Headwaters, accessed 7/3/18, published 2009, IKB, link
  7. The Spokesman-Review, accessed 7/26/18, published 2012, IKB, link
  8. State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection: Land Use Management, accessed 7/26/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  9. Rutgers University, accessed, 7/26/18, published 2018, IKB, link.

2 thoughts on “The Clean Water Act: Its Beginnings in the Columbia and Raritan Rivers

  1. Hello Allison Jones!

    I do hope you are well! Would you/Isabelle mind if the LRWP published her article on on blog? We would give proper credit, of course.

    Hugs, Heather

    On Tue, Oct 2, 2018 at 11:35 AM NO WATER NO LIFE BLOG wrote:

    > Alison M. Jones posted: “By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern (Edited > by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director) All photos © Alison M. Jones unless > otherwise noted Isabelle Bienen is Northwestern University junior studying > Social and Environmental Policy & Culture and Legal Stu” >

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