The Clean Water Act had a transformative effect on the watershed after it was first passed. With new state permitting regulations, it can again.
Exclusive to the Portland Press Herald, by Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca
As the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie’s masterpiece, the Clean Water Act, it’s a good time to assess its achievements and challenges. With age comes wisdom – and the capacity to recognize the need to change and evolve.
Since it was first passed in 1972, the Clean Water Act has excelled at reducing industrial and sewage pollution. In the Casco Bay watershed, we have witnessed the dramatic reduction of toxic discharges from paper production into the Presumpscot River. We also have witnessed the near elimination of raw sewage reaching Casco Bay due to the proliferation of wastewater treatment facilities. Older generations may remember the days before the act, when boaters were warned away from Casco Bay due to industrial pollution, and the stench and presence of untreated human waste.
Beginning in 1987, the Clean Water Act was expanded to regulate and reduce pollution carried in stormwater. This is much harder to do. When it rains or snow melts, water sheets off roads, roofs, parking lots and other hard surfaces. It picks up a toxic slurry of pesticides and fertilizers from lawns, exhaust and salt from roads, pathogens from pet waste and much more. In our cities and towns, much of this polluted stormwater flows into storm drains, through underground pipes and into waterways. Very little of this polluted water receives treatment.
While stormwater pollution is challenging to address, the Clean Water Act is among the best tools to address it. As of July 1, the Clean Water Act permit that regulates stormwater from our most urbanized communities will include three new requirements that will have a profound effect:
• municipalities must test stormwater coming out of their storm sewer system, identify sources of bacterial pollution and eliminate them;
• municipalities must adopt an ordinance requiring the use of low impact development techniques to reduce pollution from large development and redevelopment projects, and;
• municipalities must take three actions to restore water quality to waters impaired by stormwater discharges.
These measures will improve the health of waters in Maine’s most urbanized areas. In a state where our economy and way of life rests on the foundation of clean water, these strengthened requirements are needed now more than ever.
The best scientists in the state agree that climate change is increasing Maine’s annual rate of precipitation and causing more intense storms. These trends will exacerbate stormwater pollution. It will take more than these permit changes to prepare for and address this serious threat to water quality.
To tackle stormwater pollution in Maine, we will need to strengthen other stormwater permits issued under the Clean Water Act. In addition, Maine must strengthen its stormwater rules to reduce the use of chlorides, preserve open lands to naturally filter water and require small-scale development to address contributions to stormwater pollution. Municipalities should adopt stricter ordinances to decrease pollution from new and redevelopment. And we as individuals can make choices that help reduce stormwater pollution, such as leaving planted buffers near waters, not dumping leaf debris into waterways and limiting or eliminating our use of pesticides and fertilizers.
In this moment, though, let’s celebrate how far we and our waters have come.
Here’s to 50 years of the Clean Water Act. From reining in industrial and sewage pollution to taking new steps on stormwater, this landmark law has helped us improve and protect the Casco Bay watershed. Empowered by this success, let’s roll up our sleeves and work together to address the challenges ahead.