Cleaner water could help you beat the heat!

Anthony Iarrapino

There’s nothing like a major summer heat wave to help you appreciate the value of rivers, lakes, and ponds that are safe for swimming.  Like the massive herds of animals that you see on nature shows congregating by a communal watering hole, we all have a primal urge to be submerged in cold, clean water as a cure for oppressive summer heat.

Thanks to the Clean Water Act, many of our nation’s waters are once again safe for swimming most of the time.  But sadly there are still many lakeshores, oceanfronts, and riversides close to major population centers where high bacteria levels and noxious algae often make swimming unattractive and unsafe.

A blue-green algae bloom fouls the Charles River, making it off limits to swimming

All across New England, from Cape Cod to Lake Champlain, wastewater pollution, polluted runoff from parking lots and streets, and manure and other wastes from farming operations fouls water quality, depriving overheated New Englanders of the chance to safely cool off by taking a dip in their neighborhood waterway.  Ironically, the same hot weather that makes us hanker for a refreshing swim can exacerbate pollution problems by stimulating the growth of harmful algae that can make swimmers sick.

It isn’t supposed to be this way! When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it set a national goal of restoring all of our nation’s waters to safe-swimming status by 1983 and provided funding, permitting, and enforcement programs designed to achieve those goals.  Though the Clean Water Act has helped us make long-overdue progress toward that goal, our national commitment to properly funding and enforcing this fundamental law has waned along with water quality in many places.

Last night the heat was so bad in my un-air-conditioned home I had to get out for a swim.  Even though there are several stretches of the Winooski River running through my small city of Montpelier, Vt. where water flow and depth conditions would make for nice swimming, I know too much about the untreated pollution that runs off  city streets right into the river to walk down to the Winooski for a swim.  Instead, I had to jump in the car and drive a round-trip of 30 minutes into the countryside to find the clean-water relief I was seeking.  I’m lucky in this regard, because many New Englanders in more densely populated areas would have to drive farther to find a clean swimming hole even though, like me, most have another waterway that could be made–and by law is supposed to be–safe for swimming much closer to home.

By allowing regulators and policymakers to underfund and underenforce Clean Water Act programs, we are forfeiting one of our most valuable natural assets–safely-swimmable waterways.

At CLF, we are committed to achieving the national vision of restoring and protecting all our waters so they are safe for swimming and fishing–including our urban waters that flow through sweltering cities where people are most in need of a more carbon-neutral alternative to air-conditioned cooling off.  Our country still has much work to do on this public health/public happiness issue.  The heat wave is a reminder of why that work is worth doing.  To learn more about CLF’s clean water efforts for New England, please visit our web site.

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Charles River

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