This year, we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, a grassroots movement that culminated into the largest public demonstration yet observed in the United States, mobilizing 20 million people on behalf of Mother Earth.
The outpouring of public activism quickly leveraged a political response. In the years following Earth Day, the federal government established the Environmental Protection Agency and passed a series of laws designed to safeguard the air we breathe, water we drink, and land on which we live.
Reflecting on the first Earth Day and the environmental movement that followed, John C. Whitaker, Cabinet Secretary to President Nixon, had this to say:
“The feverish pitch of Earth Day 1970 passed, but the environmental movement did not go away. Instead, the drive for a cleaner environment became part of our national ethic. Now it is taken for granted, the best possible testimonial that progress is being made. Our nation’s thinking has changed. Endorsing growth without regard to the quality of that growth seems forever behind us. The failure of the economy to take into full account the social costs of environmental pollution is being rectified.”
Those words were written in 1988.
Can the same be said of America today? Is a clean environment still a keystone of our national ethic? Or have we taken for granted the progress that 20 million people demanded 50 years ago?
In this short series titled Earth Day Reflections, we consider the role of Earth Day and the evolution of America’s stewardship ethic in three parts: first, we look back on the past to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come; then we consider the state of our environment today, celebrating and calibrating our environmental victories; and finally, we look to the future and acknowledge both the challenges and opportunities ahead.
The Past: Waters of the Past
“Chocolate brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gasses, it oozes rather than flows.”
Time magazine published this odious description of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River in 1969, after the river burst into flames for the thirteenth time.
The Cuyahoga, a river in which a person “does not drown, but decays,” had been periodically catching fire since the late 1800s. At the time, Cleveland was a bustling manufacturing powerhouse and the Cuyahoga had long functioned as a repository for the city’s raw sewage and industrial waste.
These dumping practices were mirrored in cities across the country; urban rivers served as little more than sewage receptables.
Fish kills, dead zones, wetland destruction, and yes, the occasional river fire: this was the state of our water before the first Earth Day in 1970.
Earth Day and the Present: Changing Tides
Although the flammability of the Cuyahoga had been well-documented, the dying river didn’t earn notoriety until the 1969 fire and the Time magazine publication. The Time story lit its own fire in the heart of the American people and leveraged the mounting momentum of the United States’ burgeoning environmental movement to motivate political action.
In 1972, just two years after the first Earth Day, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was amended, becoming what we know today as the Clean Water Act. While the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was the first major U.S. law to address water pollution, it lacked bite.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 granted new enforcement authority to a fledgling Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement pollution control programs and restructured the previous water quality regulations making it illegal for any person to discharge pollutants without a permit.
Under the protection of the Clean Water Act, the nation’s rivers are healing. Industry discharge standards prevent more than 700 billion pounds of toxic pollutants from entering our freshwater each year; wetland destruction has slowed; and, albeit a regrettable standard, rivers have stopped catching fire.
A 2018 analysis covering 50 million water pollution datapoints and over 240,000 monitoring sites between 1962 and 2001 reveals that most measures of water pollution have improved. For example, between 1972 and 2001, the number of waterways unsafe for fishing fell by 12%.
Even the Cuyahoga has a new lease on life. While some sections still suffer from sewage pollution, its fish are now safe to eat, waterfowl have returned, and in 2019 the Cuyahoga was named River of the Year.
Our Future: Weathering the Storm
The 1972 Clean Water Act aspired to make all U.S. waters “fishable and swimmable” by 1985 – an ambitious deadline that 35 years later remains out of reach.
Of the over 500,000 stream miles assessed in 2008 and 2009, 52.7% fail to meet one or more state water quality standard. The EPA’s 2008-2009 Rivers and Stream Assessment reports that 46% of streams are in “poor” condition. Similarly, 70.5% of lakes, reservoirs, and ponds assessed in 2012 were considered impaired.
While these data should incite new political action to strengthen the Clean Water Act’s protections, instead, since 2016, the Clean Water Act has come under attack. The Trump Administration repealed revisions made in 2015 that expanded protections for small streams and wetlands, limited discharge from electric power plants, and regulated coal ash disposal to prevent ground and surface water contamination.
While it may be easy to feel discouraged by the murky uncertainty of our water’s future, we need only look to our backyards to be reminded that America’s waters are defended by a passionate and active community of citizens, researchers, and farmers.
Spanning over 13,500 square miles across Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, the Delaware River watershed is the lifeblood of the region, providing drinking water for 15 million people and supporting over $25 billion in annual economic activity. Several regional efforts are already underway to restore and protect this invaluable network of waterways.
The Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI) unites over 50 conservation organizations, including Berks Nature, to collaboratively mitigate threats to water quality using strategic, science-informed protection and restoration. To date, the DRWI’s network of partners has protected nearly 20,000 acres of forestland, restored 50 miles of stream habitat, conserved over 150 acres of wetlands, and implemented conservation best management practices on over 16,600 acres of working farmland.
Another collaborative effort, the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed (CDRW), joins nongovernmental, conservation-minded organizations to coordinate advocacy for federal and state policies and funding that promote watershed health. In 2019, thanks to the CDRW’s efforts, the fiscal year 2020 Interior Appropriations bill approved by Congress included $9.7 million in funding for the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program – a pool of money dedicated to support on-the-ground conservation and restoration projects.
Collective action, awareness, and advocacy are propelling us towards a brighter future, glimmering from a distant horizon, for freshwater and all life that depends on it.
What is State of the Environment?
The State of the Environment evaluates specific data and trends in five environmental categories: Air, Energy, Land, Waste, and Water. Within each category, several specific quantitative indicators are evaluated using available data, trends in the data are assessed, and specific action items that residents can practice to make each specific indicator more “positive” are identified. The five general environmental categories, as well as the specific environmental indicators evaluated, were selected by an interactive process. Berks Nature established subcommittees for each category, with each subcommittee headed by a professional with substantial experience in the specific field. These subcommittees discussed candidate indicators, and narrowed down the list of indicators to be used to 4-5 specific indicators where quantitative data were available.
While we could have selected many indicators regarding the health of the environment, our panel of experts chose the 25 contained in this report as a start. We pursued measurable, actionable data that would allow individuals, corporations and organizations to see where they could make lifestyle changes that would have increasingly positive effects on our local environment, the state, the country and the world. We used a third party consultant to research and write up the indicators and data. While we have tried to be as neutral as possible, obviously Berks Nature has a bias toward environmental conservation and protection. Rest assured, the data contained in this report is accurate and the facts will ultimately speak for themselves. We hope you learn something new, consider changing some of your behaviors as a result, and we invite you to become engaged in our work and that of other conservation and environmental organizations; the health of our community depends on it