When we turn on the taps in our homes, we take it for granted that clean, safe water will flow forth from them.
The folks in Toledo, Ohio, certainly won’t. They endured a two-day period last week when they were told not to drink water from the city’s municipal system because it had been infiltrated with a toxic by-product of algae that has bloomed in nearby Lake Erie in atypical abundance this summer. The same goes for the people in Charleston, W.Va., who had to suffer through an even longer stretch without water earlier this year due to a chemical spill in the Elk River.
In fact, it’s only been a relatively recent development in our history that readily available clean water has been a ho-hum fact of life. Waterborne diseases were once surefire killers in every corner of the globe, and there are still some outposts in the world, most notably sub-Saharan Africa, where the lack of potable water is a catalyst for sickness and death.
While centuries of technology and innovation led us to this moment, we can trust the water that we drink, for the most part, because of laws that have been established in the last several decades to maintain its safety. But the job is not finished. Some of those laws need to be refined and strengthened, and funds must be allocated in order to assure that one of the most basic components of our survival remains secure.
When the Clean Water Act was enacted in the 1970s, it brought to an end an anything-goes era where our rivers were dumping grounds for all manner of industrial waste and toxic sludge. Before the Clean Water Act protected these waterways, the U.S. Department of Health studied drinking water supplies around the country, and found a full 30 percent of their samples contained chemicals that were unhealthy for humans to ingest. Even those who howl and rend their garments about “big government” have to admit this is an area where federal intervention has improved the country’s health and economic vitality.
Responding to court decisions that weakened the Clean Water Act during the last decade, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are now attempting to close loopholes in the law that prevents it from protecting 2 million miles of streams and at least 20 million acres of wetlands around the country. Of course, these wetlands and streams feed into rivers that are our primary sources for drinking water, so conservation efforts aimed at these tributaries would be good for us all and a boon to fishermen, since many fish spawn in small streams.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy explained in March, “These places are where we get our drinking water, and where we hunt, fish, swim and play.”
The health of the Great Lakes, which border eights states, including our own, along with two Canadian provinces, must also be protected. The lakes are the largest freshwater reserve in the world, and they are in better condition than they once were. Toledo’s newspaper, The Blade, recently pointed out that in the 1960s, “Lake Erie was North America’s equivalent of the Dead Sea,” and it took an $8 billion reclamation effort to restore its health.
Federal aid for Great Lakes maintenance was trimmed by $25 million this year, and many no doubt salivate at the prospect of further budget cutting when it comes to environmental enforcement and stewardship. But the health of the Great Lakes, and the lakes and rivers located in our communities, is something on which we can ill afford to scrimp.