Poisoned Waters: A Frontline Presentation You Don't Want to Miss

Shana Campbell Jones

April 20, 2009

Tomorrow, Tuesday, Frontline will air Poisoned Waters, a two-hour documentary on the continuing pollution of American waterways (9pm on many PBS stations; check your local listings). Having seen part of the program, I recommend it. Watching a bulldozer move chicken manure – much of which will end up in the Chesapeake Bay – and seeing filthy stormwater drains pouring into Puget Sound serve as stark reminders for why fighting for clean water matters.

Six-legged frogs swim in the Potomac River. The oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay is decimated, only two percent of what it was fifty years ago. Approximately 150,000 pounds of untreated toxins drain into Puget Sound every day. One large industrial hog farm produces the same amount of waste as a city the size of Philadelphia annually – and much of this waste runs off into our rivers. The ways our waters are in trouble go on and on.

Poisoned Waters reminds us that, while much has been done to clean up our waterways in the 37 years since the Clean Water Act was passed, much more must be done. Old problems such as agricultural pollution were never squarely addressed by the Act. New problems such as climate change and pharmaceutical contamination have emerged.

Meanwhile, as we discussed in a report last year, our drinking water infrastructure is aging.  As the New York Times reported on Sunday, approximately $334.8 billion will be needed over the next two decades to improve water distribution systems – the $2 billion in the stimulus package allocated for this purpose is only a start. Similarly, approximately 850 billion gallons of raw sewage overflow into our waters yearly because of aging sewage systems, yet funding for upgrades and the construction of new plants decreased in recent years.

Films such as Poisoned Waters are no fun. The problems seem so big, the answers hard to come by. But we should also remember that we have made great strides for clean water in the past, and we can do so again. Before Congress passed the Clean Water Act, only about 30% of our waters were safe for fishing and swimming. That number has risen to 60 to 70 percent today. We made that happen.

Poisoned Waters does an excellent job showing that we have a long way to go, and that the problems are harder today. But here’s hoping that Poisoned Waters also reminds us that state and federal action, public investment, and individual commitment are the anecdotes to the poisons in our waters. We developed some pretty strong medicine with the Clean Water Act in 1972. We can do it again.

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