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Clean Water Act at 40: Is it failing to meet new pollution challenges?

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The recovery and decline of the Lake Erie ecosystem offer a vivid illustration of both the successes and failures of the Clean Water Act in cleaning up and protecting the nation’s waters.

Experts on environmental history and policy say that, since the act, much progress has been made: cleaning up rivers and lakes, protecting estuaries and wetlands, and curbing pollution from industry and municipal sewage – problems that were acute by the 1970s despite earlier efforts to stop pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in 1972 two-thirds of the waters in America were unfit for fishing or swimming. Today, it says, that amount has been cut in half, to one-third.

At the same time, shortcomings in the Clean Water Act and its implementation have left the nation with problems that are being addressed too slowly or hardly at all, experts and environmental advocates say. Here's a synopsis of some of these problems.

• Runoff from urban areas carries pollutants from streets and lawns into lakes and rivers. During storms, this runoff can overwhelm sewer systems, sending untreated sewage into nearby waters. Many cities are working to separate sewers that carry rainwater from those that carry sewage. Some, like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C., are also promoting the use of “green infrastructure” to reduce runoff.

• Pollution standards for different industries – standards that determine what the industries can put into the water and what they can’t – are out of date. Plus, new pollutants are emerging, including pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

“People are inventing new chemicals faster than we can figure out what to do about them,” says William Hines, a professor of law at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

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