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A Transformed San Francisco Bay - The Legacy of the Clean Water Act

Barry Nelson

Posted October 18, 2012

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It’s easy to see the Clean Water Act as an abstraction. I mean, who isn’t for clean water?   And it’s easy to overlook how this visionary bill touches us every day. From our kitchen faucets to a summer day at a beach, the Clean Water Act improves the lives of all Americans. Today is the 40th anniversary of the Act, making this an appropriate moment to reflect on progress made and challenges remaining.

Many Americans have heard of how the Cuyahoga River caught fire years ago. But unless you’re older than the Clean Water Act, it’s easy to miss the benefits of the Act in your back yard. 

For me, that legacy is personal. I see it every day.

I’ve worked to protect rivers and San Francisco Bay for most of my career. But my first memories of the Bay are far from idyllic. I grew up in the East Bay. Every month or so, my family would visit my grandparents, who lived South of San Francisco. As we approached the Bay Bridge, rounding a marsh now called the Emeryville Crescent, my brother and I would compete to see who could hold his breath the longest. The reason for the contest was simple. The Bay stank. Untreated sewage was dumped into mudflats there. (The abundant algae was the same green color as our Ford station wagon.) I didn’t know the reason for the odor. As a young boy in the sixties, I just thought the Bay was a smelly, unappealing place. I suspect that many had the same reaction.

Because of that sewage – and the smell – at the time, much Bay front property wasn’t highly prized. As a result, sewage wasn’t the only thing dumped into the Bay. In the early 1960s, dozens of dumps filled the Bay with garbage. (As a kid, I loved visiting those dumps – unlike the Bay itself --– for the sheer joy of exploration.) Before the Clean Water Act, that’s what the Bay had become -- a dump and a sewer.

Today, untreated sewage is mostly a thing of the past – thanks to the Clean Water Act.  In fact, the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s treatment facility in Emeryville is being hailed for becoming the first wastewater plant in the nation to be a net generator of electricity.

That clean up has sparked a dramatic transformation.  As water quality improved – and the odors subsided - people valued the Bay more.  Today, the dumps are closed, and the Emeryville Crescent is now a protected part of the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park - named after pioneering Bay conservationist Sylvia McLaughlin.  Today, you can find hundreds – sometimes thousands - of people walking, bicycling, fishing, running, picnicking, windsurfing, and sailing along this formerly odiferous shoreline.  Every weekend, a new generation of children form new memories of the Bay, flying kites in the steady wind that blows through the Golden Gate each afternoon.   The Bay Trail now attracts people to a place that my brother and I enjoyed in the early 1960s - for just as long as we could hold our breath. 

Today, I pass the Emeryville Crescent nearly every day on a commuter bus.  As the seasons change, I watch for the wildlife that inhabits this sliver of marsh in the midst of a great metropolis.  Occasionally, I see something special -- a sea lion catching a striped bass, a seal chasing fish along the shore, a hawk wrestling with a shorebird.  Every fall, the marsh dodder turns the pickleweed a bright orange.  Every winter, this protected part of the Bay fills with migrating ducks and shorebirds.  This is the part of my commute that I look forward to.  Occasionally, my wife and I kayak out with the Sunday paper for a picnic breakfast on a secret beach nearby.   

The Bay is just one of thousands of water bodies - rivers, lakes, bays and coastal areas – that have been transformed by the Clean Water Act, enriching the lives of American families and contributing billions of dollars to local economies. 

Around the 30th anniversary of the Act, EPA completed a summary of the Act’s water quality benefits.  This analysis found that:

  • Publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) have reduced the discharge of nutrients (measured as biochemical oxygen demand or BOD5) to the Nation's waterways by 45%, despite a 35% increase in both the population served and inflows to treatment plants.
  • 69% of river reaches below POTWs showed improvements in dissolved oxygen. 
  • 73% of major river basins had significant improvements in dissolved oxygen.
  • On a Nationwide basis, current POTW effluent loadings of BOD5 account for only 38% of total point source loadings and only 21% of total loadings from all sources.

By any measure, the Clean Water Act has produced dramatic results in terms of cleaning up traditional municipal sewage. 

On talk radio and cable TV, some portray environmental protections as abstractions and political footballs.  But the truth is that Americans value a healthy environment and that the legacy of the Clean Water Act is anything but intangible. 

It’s true that, in some areas, we haven’t yet reached the Clean Water Act’s goal of swimmable and fishable waters.  Agricultural pollution, industrial feedlots and contaminated urban runoff are still inadequately regulated.  We still have work to do – and NRDC has innovative ideas about how best to move forward.

But on this anniversary of the nation’s bedrock clean water law, take a moment to reflect on the transformation of San Francisco Bay in Emeryville.  But more importantly, think about what the Clean Water Act means to your favorite lake, river or beach. 


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