Tag: Cuyahoga River

The Promise and Peril of the Clean Water Act

Photo of a FLOW Staff and Board retreat on the Boardman River in Grand Traverse County in September.

When Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969—the same year Michigan’s Rouge River blazed because of waste oil—America had had enough of worsening water pollution. Public opinion strongly favored tougher laws and enforcement to protect water.

It took a little more than three years, but on October 18,1972, overriding a veto by President Richard Nixon, Congress enacted what has come to be known as the federal Clean Water Act. Along with considerable federal aid for construction of municipal sewage treatment facilities, the Act called for water quality standards and action by the states to implement the law and achieve the benchmarks.

The law resulted in dramatic, initial progress. Visible pollution in the nation’s lakes and streams declined; the reduction in algal blooms achieved by restricting phosphorus pollution restored the health of Lake Erie, which had been declared dead by the news media. Rivers no longer burned. Many beaches were safe and attractive for swimming again.

The Act was ambitious. It set the goal of rendering all of the nation’s waters fishable and swimmable by 1983, and for the end of water pollution discharges by 1985—goals that are far from being met today. According to a 2017 report to Congress by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

  • Rivers and streams—A 2008 assessment found that 46% of U.S. river and stream miles were in poor biological condition; phosphorus and nitrogen were the most widespread of the chemical stressors assessed.
  • Lakes, ponds, and reservoirs—The National Lakes Assessment 2012 found that 21% of the nation’s lakes were hypereutrophic (i.e., with the highest levels of nutrients, algae, and plants). Phosphorus and nitrogen were the most widespread stressors in lakes.
  • Coastal waters—According to a 2010 study, 18% of the nation’s coastal and Great Lakes waters were in poor biological condition, and 14% were rated poor based on a water quality index. Phosphorus is the leading stressor contributing to the poor water quality index rating.
  • Wetlands—A 2011 assessment found that 32% of the nation’s wetland area was in poor biological condition, with leading stressors including surface hardening (soil compaction) and vegetation removal.

The mixed condition of the nation’s waters is due to a combination of funding cuts for sewage treatment plants, population growth and expanded urban/suburban runoff, the expansion of large factory farms, and inconsistent enforcement.

Still, the Clean Water Act has resulted in significant progress in Michigan since 1972. A majority of inland lakes, the Great Lakes, and rivers meet water quality standards for swimming and other full body recreation.

Two limitations of the Clean Water Act are that it does not protect most groundwater (45% of Michigan’s population is served by drinking water from wells) and provisions that mostly exempt agriculture, a significant contributor to bacteriological and phosphorus pollutants to the nation’s waters. An exception to the latter loophole is a requirement that large livestock operations apply for Clean Water Act permits.

There have been numerous amendments to the Act since 1972. Title I of the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act of 1990, for example, put into place parts of the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978, where the two nations agreed to reduce certain toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes. That law required the EPA to establish water quality criteria for the Great Lakes addressing 29 toxic pollutants with maximum levels that are safe for humans, wildlife, and aquatic life.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) offers a short history of the Clean Water Act. EGLE’s 2020 water quality report is now available.

Strengthening the Act should be on the agenda of the next session of Congress. To truly fulfill its promise, increased sewage treatment funding and more effective approaches to urban and farm runoff are critical.  Perhaps the 50th birthday of the Act, in 2022, can bring America’s waters closer to the vision the Act’s authors had in 1972.

Resetting Expectations: Government’s Role in Protecting Human Health and the Environment

Report author Skip Pruss

Why Good Regulations are Good for our Great Lakes

This is the first of four reports by former FLOW board chair, and former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, Skip Pruss that make the economic case for government’s role in protecting the environment. FLOW will unveil one report each month.

Click here to read the first report in the series.


How We Got Here: The Rise of Modern Environmental Protection

Fifty years ago—on June 22, 1969—industrial waste covering the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames. The fire was so intense it badly damaged two railway bridges crossing the river.  It was not the first time the Cuyahoga had caught fire. Described by Time magazine as a river that “oozed rather than flowed,” the Cuyahoga had erupted in flames many times over decades, with the largest fire dating back to 1952. Yet it was the 1969 fire that ignited public concern and helped galvanize political action, culminating in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

The Cuyahoga emptied its industrial wastes into Lake Erie as did the Detroit, Sandusky, Raisin, and Maumee Rivers. Many other rivers delivered nutrient loadings of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural watersheds and municipal sewer systems. Untreated wastes and nutrients took their toll, and Lake Erie, an integral part of the largest freshwater system in the world, was declared dead.

The foundational laws and regulations in the modern era aimed at protecting public health and the environment were born in crises.

The last half century has witnessed sweeping changes in the public perception of government and its role in advancing the public interest and improving public welfare. Surveys today show public trust in government is in sharp decline and criticism of government has become a bipartisan social norm. To many, “government regulation” connotes undue interference with markets, competition, and the economy, yet, at the same time, surveys show overwhelming bipartisan support for the protection of air, water, public lands, and natural resources – an essential function of government.

To explain these contradictory outlooks, FLOW is publishing a series of four policy papers that trace the history of environmental regulation, illustrating how it protects individuals, families, and communities while fostering innovation and economic gains. FLOW advocates for greater application of the Public Trust Doctrine, a model for stewarding public resources, addressing the growing challenges of maintaining water quality and confronting the climate crisis, and at the same time, restoring public trust in government’s critical oversight role.

FLOW’s four policy papers—to be published once a month between late June and late September—will articulate the costs and benefits of environmental regulatory systems, explain how environmental regulations prevent harm, narrate how regulations protect people and support our economy, and cover market failures, subsidies, and negative externalities.

Report’s Key Facts

  • Surveys show overwhelming bipartisan support for the protection of our air, water, public lands, and natural resources. But the public lacks confidence in the effectiveness and competency of government to afford such protections.
  • “Deregulation” has become a meme that resonates to many as a desirable goal and a public good, but is rarely contextualized as undoing necessary, appropriate, and successful government interventions.
  • Absent from the public dialogue are informed discussions of the purpose and value of the protections afforded by regulations and the wide array of benefits that regulatory structures provide to the public.
  • Studies show that the quantifiable benefits of environmental regulations greatly exceed the costs imposed on business and the economy.
  • The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), under President Trump, has found that the benefits of major regulations have exceeded costs by hundreds of billions of dollars.
  • OMB also found that the benefits provided by EPA regulations are the most efficient in terms of providing the most benefits at the least cost.
  • Environmental protections afforded by federal law are under siege as the Trump administration aggressively pursues efforts to broadly roll back environmental regulations and expedite fossil fuel development, while expressing open contempt for climate concerns.
  • Government, according to the Michigan Supreme Court, has a “high, solemn and perpetual” fiduciary responsibility as trustee, under the doctrine, to protect and preserve the trust for future generations.
  • The accepted means of determining the economic impact of regulations—cost-benefit analysis—has been subverted under the Trump administration, producing an imbalanced accounting of costs over benefits.
  • The Public Trust Doctrine has the potential to apply as a compelling legal framework to protect the public interest in all commonly held natural resources—our air, our non-navigable waters, wetlands, forests, and public lands.

Executive Summary:

Using the Public Trust Doctrine to fight the war against government 

Environmental regulations are often assailed as unduly interfering with free markets, undermining competitiveness, and adding unnecessary costs to the production of goods and services. At the same time, public surveys and polling show strong and consistent support for efforts to protect natural resources and the environment.

While the public at large displays a strong consensus for measures that protect our air and water, the public has less appreciation for the full array of benefits government regulations provide and lacks confidence in the effectiveness and competency of government to afford such protections. 

The benefits of government regulation are measurable and are overwhelmingly favorable in the realm of environmental protection, where the quantifiable benefits of regulations greatly exceed the costs imposed on business and the economy.

The discontinuity between the need for regulatory interventions to protect human health and the environment and the distrust of government’s regulatory mandate is attributable, at least in part, to a strong line of critical commentary from conservative “think tanks” and right-of-center media animating suspicion and distrust in government’s effort to advance the public interest.

Environmental protections afforded by federal law are under siege as the Trump administration aggressively pursues efforts to broadly roll back environmental regulations and expedite fossil fuel development, while expressing open contempt for climate concerns. Meanwhile, former Governor Rick Snyder in late 2018 signed into law a bill that limits new regulations in Michigan to the weakened regulatory standards defined by federal law.

The field of government regulatory activities is vast. This paper provides a historical perspective on environmental regulations, illustrating the many ways government regulatory systems provide cost-effective interventions that protect human health and the environment. The effect of regulations can and should be measured and monetized as a means of ensuring sound government policies that minimize harm to the public and avoid imprudent and costly impacts.

Environmental regulations are intended to protect every citizen’s common interest in this wondrous natural resource heritage and to prevent further harm so that future generations can continue to enjoy and derive the same benefits we have today. We have charged government with this awesome responsibility and the corresponding “duty to protect” and safeguard our common natural resources is deeply embedded in Michigan’s jurisprudence.

The Public Trust Doctrine is the legal framework to protect shared natural resources also referred to as “the commons.” The Doctrine holds that the Great Lakes and their tributary waters, and by extension, all water-dependent natural resources, are held in trust for the benefit of the people. Government, according to the Michigan Supreme Court, has a “high, solemn and perpetual” fiduciary responsibility as trustee, under the doctrine, to protect and preserve the trust for future generations. In so doing, public trust in government can be enhanced as well.

Michigan lies at the heart of the Great Lakes—the most magnificent freshwater system on the planet.  The good news is that there exists a broad public consensus to protect this extraordinary natural resource endowment, as well as the availability of a long-standing set of legal principles that, if better appreciated and activated, can empower our citizens and leaders to hold government accountable for protecting our commonly held natural resource heritage.

The paper offers the long-recognized Public Trust Doctrine as a legal framework to address the challenges of protecting and enhancing our natural resources and combatting climate change while rebuilding public confidence in the role of government.