Nature and Biodiversity

50% of U.S. lakes and rivers are too polluted for swimming, fishing or drinking

A river

Florida and Indiana are two of the worst states for polluted waters. Image: Unsplash/Gláuber Sampaio

Olivia Rosane
Freelance Reporter, Ecowatch
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  • Around 51% of the country’s rivers and 55% of its lakes are in this condition, according to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP)
  • Indiana has the worst statistics for rivers, with Florida worst for lakes.
  • The findings come 50 years after the US passed the Clean Water Act.
  • The act needs to be changed to have tighter controls over agricultural runoff from factory farms, the EIP says.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. passed the Clean Water Act with the goal of ensuring “fishable, swimmable” water across the U.S. by 1983.

Now, a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) finds the country has fallen far short of that goal. In fact, about half of the nation’s lakes and rivers are too polluted for swimming, fishing or drinking.

“The Clean Water Act should be celebrated on its 50th birthday for making America’s waterways significantly cleaner,” EIP Executive Director Eric Schaeffer said in a press release announcing the report. “However, we need more funding, stronger enforcement, and better control of farm runoff to clean up waters that are still polluted after half a century. Let’s give EPA and states the tools they need to finish the job – we owe that much to our children and to future generations.”

The report was based on reports that states are required to submit under the Clean Water Act on the pollution levels of their rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries. According to the most recent reports, more than half of the lakes and rivers are considered “impaired,” meaning that they fall short of standards for fishing, swimming, aquatic life and drinking.

Specifically, around 51 percent of rivers and streams and 55 percent of lake acres are considered impaired, The Hill reported. Further, 26 percent of estuary miles are also impaired.

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The Clean Water Act was a landmark legislative achievement when it was passed in 1972. It promised to end the discharge of all pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, according to the press release. However, it has fallen short of that goal for several reasons, according to the report.

The act has strong controls for pollution pumped directly into waterways from factories or sewage plants but not for indirect pollution such as agricultural runoff from factory farms. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has dragged its feet in updating industry-specific technology-based limits for water pollution control systems. By 2022, two-thirds of these industry-specific limits had not been updated in more than 30 years. Budget cuts have hampered the ability of the EPA and state agencies to enforce the law. Permit requirements are poorly enforced. Total Maximum Daily Loads, a kind of pollution control plan, are insufficient. There are problems effectively managing watersheds that cover two or more states.

The report also broke down pollution by state. Indiana has the most miles of rivers and streams too impaired for swimming and recreation.

“Indiana’s waters have benefited from the Clean Water Act, but unfortunately, they also illustrate some of the gaps in the law,” Dr. Indra Frank, Environmental Health & Water Policy Director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said in the press release. “We have seen persistent, unresolved impairments, especially for E coli bacteria in our rivers and streams, in part from industrial agricultural runoff. And we have also seen examples of Clean Water Act permits used to send water contaminated with coal-ash into our rivers. We need to halt pollution like this.”

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Florida, meanwhile, had the most lake acres impaired for swimming and aquatic life.

“Florida’s toxic-algae crisis is the direct result of lax enforcement of phosphorus and nitrogen pollution limits in cleanup plans required by the Clean Water Act,” Friends of the Everglades Executive Director Eve Samples said in the press release. “Because these limits rely on voluntary ‘best management practices’ and a presumption of compliance, agricultural polluters regularly exceed phosphorus runoff limits while dodging responsibility — leading to harmful algal blooms in Florida’s lakes, rivers, estuaries, and even on saltwater beaches.”

The report did propose several solutions that range from making sure that the EPA and other agencies carry out their duties under the existing law to strengthening the act with new legislation to control runoff pollution.

This last is particularly important because agricultural runoff and other indirect pollution sources are the leading causes of waterway pollution.

“Factory-style animal production has become an industry with a massive waste disposal problem and should be regulated like other large industries,” the study authors wrote.

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