Stormwater runoff carries an assortment of litter and unseen pollutants into rivers, lakes, and marine waters, including Puget Sound.

How Stormwater Pollution Became A Clean Water Concern

Stormwater runoff carries an assortment of litter and unseen pollutants into
rivers, lakes, and marine waters, including Puget Sound.
Credit: Katie Campbell/EarthFix

Work to develop solutions to the stormwater problem dates at least to the 1970s. Scientists, government officials and others woke up to the problem in a big way in the 1980s.

Clean Water: The Next Act

Fifteen years after adopting the Clean Water Act in 1972, Congress in 1987 amended the statute with directions for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to go after stormwater. But changing the law didn’t fix the problem.

Congress’ action prompted the EPA and its proxies at the state level to begin requiring cities to obtain government permits to operate the systems of gutters, pipes and so forth that dump the polluted stormwater into streams, rivers, lakes and bays. The local governments were required to:

Laura James swims inside a stormwater outfall in Puget Sound that she has come to call "The Monster" because of how much runoff billows from it when it rains.

How We Got Into Such A Mess With Stormwater

Laura James swims inside a stormwater outfall in Puget Sound that she has come
to call “The Monster” because of how much runoff billows from it when it rains.
Michael Bendixen/OPB

SEATTLE — Gliding through the clear, emerald water of Puget Sound, Diver Laura James stopped when something shiny on the bottom caught her eye. She reached down and picked up a tire-flattened beer can.

And then she noticed more garbage — stir straws, bubble gum wrappers, coffee lids, a plastic packet of ketchup — littered across the sound’s sandy floor.

Clean Water: The Next Act

“I didn’t understand what I was seeing at first,” James says. “We’d swim along and we’d see this decaying swath – black with dead leaves and garbage. And then it would go back to normal.”

James, who has been diving in Puget Sound for more than 20 years, recalls the day she discovered the source. The giant submerged column she saw from a distance was in reality a dark plume of runoff flowing out of a pipe.

“It was just billowing and billowing,” James says. “It just made me feel almost helpless because it’s unstoppable.”

She asked herself, “How do we stop something that’s so much bigger than us?”

Peter Maier, a Salt Lake City-area engineer, has crusaded for three decades to improve testing of sewage, which he says would show the need for additional pollution cleanup to protect U.S. waterways under the Clean Water Act.

One man’s crusade to stop water pollution by getting sewage testing right

Peter Maier, a Salt Lake City-area engineer

Peter Maier, a Salt Lake City-area engineer, has crusaded for three decades to improve testing of sewage, which he says would show the need for additional pollution cleanup to protect U.S. waterways under the Clean Water Act.

SALT LAKE CITY – If Peter Maier is right, sewage treatment plants across the country are performing a crucial scientific test incorrectly, resulting in widespread pollution of lakes, rivers and streams in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. And they’re doing it with the express approval of the federal government.

Clean Water: The Next Act

At the heart of the engineer’s contention: Our sewage-treatment plants fail to clean up urine.

For three decades Maier has aggressively, even abrasively, pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require different testing of sewage dumped by wastewater treatment plants. Maier says the tests must take better account of how much oxygen the pollution takes out of the waterways where it is dumped, and how much it will encourage the growth of algae that can lead to fish kills.

At stake, Maier says, is whether the country can come closer to meeting critical requirements of the Clean Water Act, passed 40 years ago this month: cleaning up waterways to be fishable and swimmable.

Over those four decades, algae blooms and fish kills have become more common. Scientists increasingly blame this on an overabundance of nutrients in wastewater. One is phosphorus. Another is nitrogen. And nitrogen, Maier says, is being largely ignored because of a botched testing method.

“The way they test now, you get false and misleading information,” Maier said.

Paul Gilliland is the mayor of the Eastern Washington town of Harrington. He's pictured collecting a sample of water that will flow into a lagoon. The mayor is getting certified to operator Harrington's wastewater plant.

Cities And Towns Still Struggle To Control Sewage 40 Years After The Clean Water Act

Paul Gilliland is the mayor of the Eastern Washington town of Harrington. He’s pictured collecting a sample of water that will flow into a lagoon. The mayor is getting certified to operator Harrington’s wastewater plant.
Courtney Flatt/EarthFix

HARRINGTON, Wash. — When a fire breaks out, Fire Chief Scott McGowan is on the call. He’s on the spot when a sewer line breaks and somebody has to fix it. He is in charge of the drinking water plant that serves the 420 people in the small Eastern Washington town.

Clean Water: The Next Act

And he doubles as the wastewater treatment operator, not as glamorous as being fire chief, but it’s part of his job description.

McGowan’s backup at the wastewater plant? Until the city can hire another worker, that would be Mayor Paul Gilliland. He already handles most of the wastewater plant’s paperwork and is studying to earn an operator certification so he can be a full-service mayor.

Harrington is just one of many communities across the Pacific Northwest that is operating on a tight budget and trying not to violate it’s wastewater pollution permit.

One of the main goals of the 1972 Clean Water Act was to stop “point-source pollution.” That’s the sewage and industrial waste pumped out of pipes and into the nation’s waterways.

To help communities build and upgrade wastewater collection and treatment systems in the years after the Clean Water Act’s passage, the federal government handed out billions of dollars in grants. But most of those federal grants are gone, replaced by loans. At the same time, those federally subsidized municipal wastewater systems have aged.

Wood Smoke

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Sickness: Wood Smoke Now a Major Northwest Air Polluter

 

The warning label on the wrapping of neatly split firewood is one we’re more accustomed to seeing on cigarettes or heavy-duty chemicals: “known… to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.”

But in fact, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, asthma attacks and premature death – in addition to cancer – all are linked to wood smoke pollution. It’s a finding that poses a vexing dilemma for poor and rural communities around the Northwest where wood is a cheap or even free source of heat.

And in Tacoma, where the air is so dirty it violates the Clean Air Act, authorities are gearing up for what promises to be an arduous and expensive campaign over the better part of a decade to clean up wood smoke pollution. It’s an effort that already has some residents chafing at government interference, and one that will set the stage for how other Northwest communities are treated when they bump up against tightened federal pollution standards.

In Tacoma and many towns across the Northwest, wood smoke is a prime culprit in driving spikes of sooty, toxic air pollution that leave some residents – particularly asthmatics, kids and the elderly – gasping for breath.  It’s especially bad during sunny, cold stretches like those we’ve seen in recent weeks, because atmospheric conditions trap the pollution close to the ground.