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Report Puts Potomac River as “Most Endangered,” Highlights Why Clean Water Protections Critical

(Beyond Pesticides, May 16, 2012) With Congress considering drastic cuts to national clean water protections, and rivers nationwide facing threats from natural gas drilling, chemical pollution, and new dams, American Rivers yesterday released its annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers.® It names the Potomac River, known as ‘the nation’s river’ as it flows through the capital, the most endangered in the country. While the Potomac is cleaner than it used to be, the river is still threatened by urban and agricultural pollution –and it could get much worse if Congress rolls back critical clean water safeguards.

As the country commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act this year, the Potomac is emblematic of what is at stake for rivers nationwide. American Rivers launched a national call to action, giving citizens the opportunity to contact members of Congress and speak up for clean water. The report, “America’s Most Endangered Rivers,” notes that urban development is funneling tons of polluted rainwater to the river, that chemical fertilizer and manure from farms make matters worse, and that wastewater overflowing from sewers, along with pharmaceuticals flushed down toilets, contribute to dead zones in which marine life dies and might cause intersex fish.

Beyond Pesticides notes that the U.S. Geological Society (USGS) has even found low level pesticide residues in drinking waters. The report placed the Potomac atop nine other rivers nationwide, including the Green River, the largest feeder to the Colorado River, the Chattahoochee River, which runs by Atlanta, and the Missouri River.

“This year’s Most Endangered Rivers list underscores how important clean water is to our drinking water, health, and economy,” said Bob Irvin, President of American Rivers. “If Congress slashes clean water protections, more Americans will get sick and communities and businesses will suffer. We simply cannot afford to go back to a time when the Potomac and rivers nationwide were too polluted and dangerous to use.”

Attempts to protect U.S. waterways from chemical contamination, including contamination from pesticides, have recently been attacked by industry groups and Congress. The bill H.R. 872, “Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011,” seeks to revoke EPA’s authority to require permits for pesticide discharges into waterways and passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, an attempt to reverse a 2009 federal court order instructing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require permits under the Clean Water Act for pesticide discharges. (See All Daily News coverage) Soon after H.R. 872 was passed, the Republican-controlled chamber passed the “Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011,” H.R. 2018. This act would prevent EPA from stepping in to enforce clean water standards when it deemed that a state agency was not effectively enforcing the law. It would also prevent EPA from refining its existing water standards to reflect the latest science without first getting approval from a state agency. Thus far, there have been a staggering 125 pieces of legislation that will reduce environmental protection including 50 bills targeting EPA, 16 to dismantle the Clean Water Act, 31 against actions that can prevent pollution, and 22 to defund or repeal clean energy initiatives.

Recently this year, the “Preserve the Waters of the United States Act” (S. 2245, H.R. 4965) was introduced in the House and Senate to prevent the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers’ attempts to finalize guidance, “Guidance Regarding Identification of Waters Protected by the Clean Water Act” that would extend federal protections to more of the nation’s waterways, including small streams and wetlands. According to EPA and the Army Corps, under this proposed guidance the number of waters identified as protected by the Clean Water Act will increase compared to current practice, and this improvement will aid in protecting the nation’s public health and aquatic resources. Industry and their supporters in Congress are campaigning to prevent federal authorities from restoring and protecting small streams and wetlands.

Before the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972, the Potomac and other notable rivers in the U.S. were cesspools of sewage and industrial pollution. The Clean Water Act affords the Potomac and other rivers across the country some protections from indiscriminate pollution from industrial and agricultural sources so that waterways are cleaner and safer for drinking, boating, and fishing. However, according to the USGS, over 50 percent of waterways in the U.S. are contaminated with pesticides and other pollutants that exceed federal standards. A University of Maryland report card has given the river, and by extension the Chesapeake Bay, a “D” grade for water quality for the past two years. Five million people in the DC region depend on the Potomac for drinking water.

Sources: American Rivers Press Release, Washington Post

Diagram: American Rivers

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.


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