The little stream was bright orange behind my grade school. Even as a first grader in the late 1960s in those days before the first Earth Day and before the Clean Water Act, I knew that it was bad to have an orange stream.
The unnatural color came from a steel plant. People in the small northern Ohio town had jobs at the plant and chose not to complain about the orange color and chemical smell. Folks in neighboring communities downstream didn’t get a choice about the pollution flowing their way.
I was reminded of the orange stream recently while attending a meeting of the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force in New Orleans. I was there to provide public comment as Policy Manager for the Mississippi River Network and its 1 Mississippi campaign.
While chatting with someone from the Ohio EPA at the Hypoxia Task Force meeting, I heard the good news that my childhood stream no longer was orange. Some fish had even returned. Challenges remain in keeping pollutants from the steel plant from flowing downstream into several other rivers, before eventually reaching the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Balancing concerns f olocal economic growth and downstream environment health continues to be difficult for the little stream and the local community. But the Clean Water Act, and both state and federal Environmental Protection Agencies, are doing what they were created to do, protecting water as it flows across property lines, city limits and state boundaries, giving voice to the concerns of downstream neighbors and future generations.
Before passage of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, local and state governments often sacrificed public health and environmental concerns because of short-term economic pressures and the threat of jobs moving elsewhere. People one place I lived said, “That smell in the air is money in your pocket.”
The Clean Water Act created a level playing field through a baseline of environmental and public health protections nationally and put the state and federal EPAs in the striped shirts to make sure that a fair and clean game was played. Just like people love to complain about the referee at a football game, the state and federal EPAs are targeted by those who want short-term financial gain at the long-term expense of their neighbors and future generations. Recent examples of lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, and the expense of removing nitrates from drinking water in Des Moines, Iowa, show that economic concerns still sometimes put public and environmental health at risk.
Algal blooms fed by excess nitrogen and phosphorous in our waterways, some from urban sources but mostly from agriculture, risk public health in local water supplies and cause environmental and economic disruptions regionally. Remember how Toledo, Ohio was forced to turn off the drinking water tap in 2014 because of algal blooms in Lake Erie? The biggest such algal bloom problem area in the United States, and one of the top in the world, is the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It truly is a national problem that crosses state lines.
The USEPA formed the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force nearly 20 years ago to study the Dead Zone problem and find solutions. The USEPA’s Hypoxia Task Force convenes representatives from many federal agencies and 12 states to work individually and collectively to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous runoff pollution from urban and agricultural sources.
The USEPA has patiently tried to get involved states to voluntarily take actions to reduce water pollution, but progress has been painfully slow. The size of the Dead Zone has yet to shrink, but the Hypoxia Task Force and many others working on the issue now have a much better idea of what needs to happen. And proven tools are now available to give farm healthier soils, better productivity, more resilience to drought and downpours, and a better bottom line for everyone locally and downstream.
Some experts even feel that we’re reaching the tipping point on common sense practices like cover crops and in successfully bringing perennial grains to market. The agricultural producers and markets need the push and help from federal and state decision-makers now to move from decades of talk and planning to taking decisive action.
That’s why we’ve recently asked our 1 Mississippi River Citizens and other people concerned with the future of our rivers, lakes and the Gulf of Mexico to take action now reaching out to the Governors of the states represented on the Hypoxia Task Force. We need for them to take steps in their states to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous runoff pollution. It’ll benefit their residents locally and their downstream neighbors too.
We also need for the upcoming new administration at the USEPA and other federal agencies to remain committed to reducing algal bloom problems nationally and especially reducing the size of the Dead Zone.
It was great to have a chance at the Hypoxia Task Force meeting to personally thank the state EPA representative for helping the little orange stream return to life, and for their agency’s continued work to remove the remaining pollution.
As River Citizens, we all can show our appreciation to those visionary and courageous people at the federal and state level who created the Clean Water Act and who work in the agencies charged with protecting our environment in our states and nation. It’s a difficult job refereeing competing concerns, keeping the playing field level and clean, and protecting life in our little streams and big rivers.
Policy Manager, Mississippi River Network