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Clean Water Act’s Successes Imperiled

Diving birds, and a beach that doesn’t stink.

That’s what the Clean Water Act means to Denny Ashlock, whose home is on the shore of Liberty Lake.

“I sit there at night and I watch the osprey diving for fish, and I watch the mergansers,” he says. “We didn’t use to have that.”

Efforts to get rid of the septic tanks that polluted the Spokane Valley lake began soon after Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Money became available for water-quality studies, wastewater treatment plants, sewer lines. Standards were set for sewage disposal. Industries that dumped chemicals in the water could no longer avoid pollution rules by moving from one place in the country to another.

The law proposed to make all rivers and lakes “fishable and swimmable,” and end all polluting discharges by 1985. While it didn’t meet those ambitious goals, there are success stories - many in the Inland Northwest.

But government budgets are tight these days; there’s concern that environmental rules are costing jobs.

A conservative Congress is rewriting the Clean Water Act.

Last week, the House of Representatives voted to weaken enforcement of pollution standards for factories and sewage treatment plants; drop rules to control farmland runoff and stormwater; and make fewer wetlands eligible for protection.

Wetlands protection is the biggest point of contention this year.

Many landowners complain that the government is using the Clean Water Act to rob them of the right to use their property. They see the rules to protect swamps and ponds as arbitrary and needlessly broad.

Brad Corkill got in trouble with enforcers of the Clean Water Act a few years back when he expanded his sawmill log yard on top of polluted mine tailings near Cataldo, Idaho. The land wasn’t wet, but had vegetation that matched the nearby wetlands.

“It cost me money, and it cost me a lot of time,” Corkill says. He got to keep his log yard, but had to create a new wetland elsewhere.

He argues that the law allows individual government agents too much power to say what is and isn’t a wetland, but adds: “I don’t think anybody can argue with the intent of the act.”

The fate of the Clean Water Act now lies with the U.S. Senate and President Clinton, who could veto whatever Congress hands him.

Meanwhile, regional water experts are reflecting on what the Clean Water Act has meant in North Idaho and Eastern Washington. Among the highlights are the following:

Spokane River cleanup

Like Liberty Lake, parts of the lower Spokane River were congested with ugly algae caused by too much phosphorus in the water. The main culprit was sewage. After the Clean Water Act passed, Spokane got a new wastewater treatment plant; the town of Millwood in the Spokane Valley shut down its old plant and connected to Spokane’s; plants upstream in Idaho were improved.

Idaho and Washington worked together to meet federal standards for phosphorus pollution in the river. County governments banned phosphate detergents to further help the cause.

Aquifer protection

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Spokane County spent $700,000 on protection and monitoring of the Spokane-Rathdrum aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for most residents. Half that money came via the Clean Water Act.

The story was similar in Idaho, where the underground river begins its westward journey. Replacing septic tanks with sewers became a major regional goal.

“Without those federal dollars, no one would have started looking at the Spokane aquifer as a whole system,” says Stan Miller, county water quality manager. “We’d still be looking at the impact of building one subdivision at a time.”

Major lake studies

Some Clean Water Act money went into a recent study of Lake Coeur d’Alene, many more dollars have been funneled over the last few years into Lake Roosevelt studies. In both cases, the goal is a management plan to clean up existing pollution, and prevent any further declines in the face of rapid development.

But Lake Pend Oreille is the stellar example of using the act. Thanks to congressmen from Montana, Idaho and Washington, the lake got its own section in the 1987 version of the Clean Water Act, authorizing a study that was done with $1.3 million in federal dollars.

A management plan was written to clean up and protect the 26,000-square-mile watershed. A three-state council is working to carry it out, but hit a wall this year when members went to Congress looking for more Clean Water Act money.

Even without a major rewrite of the act, federal pursestrings have been tightening for years.

The kind of help that Liberty Lake got for its cleanup is no longer available.

Still, the act pours a lot of money into state environmental programs, which enforce clean-water rules. There are grants for projects like the current cleanup of mine wastes in Nine Mile Creek, which flows into the Coeur d’Alene River.

Even where there is no money, there are rules. For example, when the state of Washington destroyed wetlands in the process of widening U.S. Highway 395 north of Spokane, it was required to create other wetlands to make up for the loss.

Bill Funk, a water researcher at Washington State University, worries that the money and the rules will be a thing of the past.

“I started my career as a high school teacher in Utah. I remember looking out my classroom window and seeing toilet paper caught on the bushes of the Jordan River as it flowed by,” he says.

“Here it is 30 years later, and I can’t help but worry that I’ll see that again.”