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Cleaning up US waterways: 5 success stories

More than 40 years after passage of the Clean Water Act, US waterways still face significant challenges. However, several cleanup success stories offer hope that remediation is possible.  

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A person prays at sunset along the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., on Oct. 7, 2010.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File

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The Environmental Protection Agency rates more than half of US waterways as being in poor condition. But in recent decades, some lakes and rivers have undergone dramatic recoveries, thanks to local, state, and federal restoration efforts. Here are a few examples culled from EPA data.

At one time, heavy rains washed as much as 1.7 billion gallons of sewage and storm water a year into Massachusetts' Charles River. EPA-enforced renovations of Boston's sewer and storm-water systems nearly eliminated that pollution. In 2013, the river was deemed swimmable for the first time since the 1950s.

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The bottom of Ohio's Ashtabula River once harbored 25,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and other toxic compounds following decades of unmonitored dumping of hazardous waste. Dredging efforts completed in 2008 successfully removed more than 630,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. The Ashtabula is now considered fishable.

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Virginia's James River once ran thick with algae, sewage, and agricultural chemicals. Thanks to waste-water treatment upgrades and pollution controls, smallmouth bass fisheries have recovered, and bald eagles, ospreys, and blue herons have returned to the area.

In the 1990s, the waters of California's San Diego Creek contained high levels of pesticides, the result of residential and agricultural runoff. Education campaigns designed to teach homeowners and nursery managers alternative pest-control and runoff-prevention techniques led to a dramatic turnaround.

Winter fish kills and summer algae blooms were once annual occurrences in Wisconsin's Bass Lake because of runoff from livestock operations and other agricultural activities. The implementation of barnyard-control practices and the addition of sediment-control basins and leachate-collection systems have revitalized fish populations and eliminated the occurrence of algae blooms.