FLORIDA, USA — It's been nearly 50 years since the United States passed the Clean Water Act — a law meant to rein in pollution and create a national standard for water quality.
Following World War II, the United States saw massive development, placing stress on waterways dealing with industrial and urban pollution. Attempts at regulating water pollution during the years that followed could not fully address the issue.
That was until 1972 when Congress passed a sweeping set of amendments dubbed the Clean Water Act. The law officially established a basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into waterways across the country. In the years to come, modifications and new amendments only strengthened the law.
But, a recent study conducted by researchers at a national environmental non-profit looked into the law's legacy across the country by analyzing each state's water quality. What it found was Florida ranked first in the nation for the total acres (873,340 acres) of lakes deemed too polluted for swimming and aquatic life.
Florida's estuaries ranked 2nd in the nation for most impaired. Tampa Bay is the largest estuary in the state, where the Hillsborough River dumps into the Gulf of Mexico. Just last week, Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful removed roughly 200 pounds of trash from a small section of the river.
"You wouldn't believe how much trash we pick out," Kristina Moreta, the education director for KTBB said. "We weren't even a mile away from armature works, we got 200 pounds of trash."
More than 99 percent of the state's estuaries are considered impaired. Eighty-nine percent of the lakes are too polluted to swim in.
"There are a couple of warning signs that have us concerned," Dr. Marcus Beck, a program scientist with Tampa Bay Estuary Program said. "We have lost some seagrass in the last couple of years. We do have some water quality issues in old Tampa bay, in the northwest part of the bay that make us concerned."
The Environmental Integrity Project, which conducted the study, found the source of much of Florida's water problems was Lake Okeechobee. According to researchers, development north and south of the lake throughout the 20th Century disrupted its natural water flow, forcing the water out into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.
The result was an abundant amount of nutrient-rich water fueling excessive algae blooms in these delicate ecosystems. Those blooms can be toxic to not only sea life but humans inhaling the air nearby.
While Florida led the nation in that category, researchers found many states were not in the best shape as well.
The nonprofit says while the initial impact of the Clean Water Act created dramatic improvements in water quality, its effectiveness has waned in recent years. One main reason is its inability to regulate run-off pollution from farm fields, suburban lawns, and parking lots. Researchers say much of the responsibility to oversee such pollution was deferred to state governments who in turn made landowners responsible.
"A major source of runoff pollution is agriculture," the report says, in part. "The spreading of excess fertilizer and manure leads to nitrogen and phosphorus being washed into streams and rivers and feeding algal blooms."
A lack of enforcement in many states has veered the law away from its mission of "making 100 percent of all waters in the U.S. 'fishable and swimmable,'" according to the group.
In order to get the Clean Water Act back on track and accomplish its goal, researchers say Congress should consider:
- Require more frequent updates to pollution standards to keep up with industries
- Closing the law's loophole on agricultural run-off pollution
- Set universal guidelines rather than a patchwork of state methods of monitoring
- Make it easier to enforce cleanups