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A New Study Says the U.S. Clean Water Act Needs to Be Cleaned Up

A new study has shown the Clean Water Act has done less to limit more diffuse types of pollution, such as 'nonpoint source pollution' (NPS) including agricultural runoff from fields and urban stormwater from buildings, paved surfaces, and yards.

MISSOURI— A new study released on Dec. 7 by the University of Missouri, argues the Clean Water Act, established in 1972, is no longer serving its purpose in the manner that it was intended to.


“While the Clean Water Act successfully regulated many obvious causes of pollution, such as the dumping of wastewater, it’s done less to limit more diffuse types of pollution, such as “nonpoint source pollution” (NPS) that includes agricultural runoff from fields and urban stormwater from buildings, paved surfaces, and yards,” said the study.


According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, NPS pollution typically results from land runoff, precipitation, atmospheric deposition, drainage, seepage, or hydrologic modification. Unlike pollution from industrial and sewage treatment plants, NPS pollution comes from many diffuse sources. NPS pollution is caused by rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground. As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and ground waters.


Although it is hard to recognize, nonpoint source pollution has become one of the leading environmental threats to drinking water across the country, said MU researchers.


“Large amounts of nitrates and nitrites, such as those found in fertilizer, can cause negative health effects such as blue baby syndrome,” said Robin Rotman, assistant professor in the MU School of Natural Resources, who led the study. “Nonpoint source pollution can lead to toxic algae blooms; pesticides and herbicides also contain carcinogens that can threaten human health.”


In 1969, the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Oh. was so polluted that it caught fire. This event helped launch the modern environmental movement and prompting Congress to pass the Clean Water Act three years later. It was one of the first laws to protect waterways and set national water quality standards.


The Clean Water Act will celebrate 50 years of existence in 2022, therefore researchers have studied the existing legislation and regulation and identified critical gaps. As a result of their findings, researchers are urging expanded, new, or updated policies to reduce NSP. In addition, researchers have concluded that multiple municipalities will need to invest in sophisticated drinking water treatment systems to remove contaminants without quick action. However, those systems can come with expensive price tags in the range of millions of dollars, and the cost would likely be passed on to taxpayers in the form of higher drinking water bills, said the study.


Researchers have proposed three methods of action to take on NSP.


  • “Amend the Clean Water Act to require states to control nonpoint source pollution and offer federal funding for state and local initiatives to address it, including engineered solutions (such as filtration systems) and environmental solutions (such as planting vegetation next to bodies of water).
  • Extend the Safe Drinking Water Act (which established contaminant limits for public water systems) to protect more rural water sources from nonpoint source pollution.
  • Encourage citizens to understand nonpoint source pollution and better care for their local water sources.”

Associate professor in the College of Engineering and a co-author of the study, Kathleen Trauth, said it is essential to control pollution even before it reaches public water treatment facilities. Trauth said one way to accomplish this would be to apply standards from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which places maximum contaminant levels for 87 potentially dangerous substances to rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water regulated by the Clean Water Act. Trauth said regulators also need the authority to limit.

“As the sources are many and they involve so many contributors, it can be hard to say how we should work on these problems,” said Trauth. “But the difficulty cannot deter us from addressing them. To reorient our thinking, let’s focus on where we want to go. Because if we really want to ensure clean water, we need to think about nonpoint source pollution.”

There have been attempts to prosecute the Clean Water Act into addressing NSP. Still, researchers said their proposals offer direct ways of facing the issue and ensuring the nation’s drinking water is safe for years to come.

“Since the Clean Water Act was written, there was always a recognition that nonpoint pollution is a problem,” said Rotman in the study. “This issue is particularly important in the Great Plains states where agriculture is a leading industry. We want to see that industry continue to thrive, and at the same time ensure that people have access to safe drinking water.”

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