Waterkeeper Alliance's Clean Water Act 40 Campaign
Celebrating 40 Years of Clean Water and Healthy Communities
Nearly 40 years ago, Congress signed into law a historic piece of legislation that would turn the tide of our polluted waterways and hold big polluters accountable for their actions and attacks on the health of our communities. Prior to the Clean Water Act’s enactment, the Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it was literally in flames, the majestic Hudson River’s fishery was gone and Lake Erie was declared all but dead. This bold legislation put forward by visionaries in Congress returned control of our nation’s waterways to the citizens of the United States as part of the public trust. However, today the concept of the public trust, the commons, is being quickly eroded by corporate polluters and their cronies in Congress who are determined to return to the era of using out nation’s waterways as open sewers, toxic dumps and landfills.
Despite the fact that the Clean Water Act has been responsible for providing millions of Americans with opportunities to swim, drink and fish in clean water, every branch of our federal government—the legislative, executive and judicial—has taken aim at the Act. The courts have worked to narrow the definition of “waters of the United States,” and Congress has made efforts to continually chip away at the Act. Many states have even joined the party, cutting clean water enforcement budgets every time they face a fiscal challenge. Now, as we celebrate 40 years of clean water protections, our Congress is launching the most aggressive, nefarious attacks on our right to clean water in history.
As the Clean Water Act moves into its 40th year, it faces a midlife crisis not of its own doing, but by members of Congress who put the interest of the public aside to do the bidding of the corporate polluters that fill their campaign coffers. If their efforts succeed, they will cripple contemporary American democracy and undermine the most extraordinary body of environmental law in the world. We, as the voices of clean water, cannot allow that to happen.
Most recently, in the latter months of 2011, a myriad of bills before the U.S. House of Representatives have been laden with extraneous amendments and anti-environmental ‘riders’ that seek to dismantle our environmental protections piecemeal, or, as in the case of one of these bills, the cynically named Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011 (H.R. 2018), which would seek to take a sledgehammer to the very foundation of the Clean Water Act.
The bill takes aim at the Clean Water Act, which has become a global model for water protection. Seeking to strip the federal government’s authority to regulate water quality standards and weaken U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s power to enforce the law when states fail to protect waterways, this approach will start a race to the bottom as shortsighted and self-interested state politicians dismantle their clean water laws as payback to their supporters, including the nation’s worst polluters. These bills, amendments and budget riders propose to gut the Clean Water Act and jeopardize the environmental health of our waterways and the lifeblood of our communities across the country, all without public debate.
In 2012 and beyond, Waterkeeper Alliance, River Network and our partners will work to remind Americans, and the world, that we have indeed come a long way from 1969 when the Cuyahoga River was burning. But we still have a long way to go to protect all of our waterways and attain Congress’ 1972 goal to have eliminated all discharges of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, a goal that clearly has not been achieved.
On the 39th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the Waterkeeper Alliance officially launched its Clean Water Act (CWA) 40 Campaign. The goal of CWA 40 is to bolster the imperiled Act through implementing a strategic series of coordinated efforts to celebrate, activate and advocate around the central tenets of the Act: swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters for all.
To make the most of this opportunity, the campaign will not only educate the public about the importance of the Act, but also activate and empower our coalition to influence national leaders from a policy and enforcement perspective. We will not stand for any attacks on our communities that undermine the clean water protections that our streams, rivers, lakes and estuaries have been afforded over the past 40 years.
Strategies & Tactics
The three central components of the initiative will employ a variety of strategies and tactics that seek to attract diverse participation from clean water advocates across the country.
1. Celebrate: A series of Swimmable, Drinkable and Fishable Water Action Days will celebrate the victories enabled by the Act and the basic fundamental right to clean water through high profile events around the nation and “virtual marches” on Washington, wherein we will target support for specific measures that will strengthen these three essentials. These Action Days will culminate in a major “Swim, Drink, Fish Rally” on the National Mall in October 2012, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Clean Water Act.
2. Activate: Waterkeeper Alliance will activate a national alliance of environmental groups that work to protect clean water and develop a network of “Waterkeeper Clubs” on college campuses to engage young people in this effort. In addition, we will be working simultaneously with Waterkeepers and volunteers in communities across the country to educate citizens about the importance of clean water to the environment and the health of our communities.
In May of 2012, Waterkeeper Alliance is joining forces with River Network to hold the largest gathering of water advocates to date: River Rally 2012. More than 600 people will join together in Portland, Oregon to enhance their water-related technical skills, learn how to build the capacity of their organizations, share best practices for watershed protection and receive training on advocating for the Clean Water Act in their watersheds.
Waterkeeper Alliance plans to develop advocacy toolkits to aid in the education of River Rally attendees so they can return to their watersheds and educate members of their communities on the value of clean water and the need to protect that right for all. By doing so, we will build a grassroots constituency that is rarely engaged in public policy, but are critical to protecting the Clean Water Act at a time when it remains under attack.
3. Advocate: Strategic regional and community-based advocacy is the most effective tool to turn back the rising tide against the Clean Water Act. Waterkeeper, and our partners, will organize and provide the tools for our coalition to push back against rollbacks to the Clean Water Act, while highlighting the critical need for continued and expanded protections within the Act, the most effective tool we have against water pollution.
While advocating for clean water and healthy communities has been the primary mission of Waterkeeper Alliance since its inception, the Clean Water Act’s 40th Anniversary provides a unique opportunity for Waterkeeper Alliance and partners to focus on the success of the Act thus far, develop and deploy strategies for strengthening the Act and ensure the Act endures for another 40 years and beyond.
Please join us in this effort. Visit Waterkeeper Allaince's website and follow us on Twitter to learn more, or contact Pete Nichols, Western Regional Director of Waterkeeper Alliance at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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