When the federal Clean Water Act became law in 1972, the expectations were that surface waters across the United States would be safe for swimming and fishing by 1983 and that by 1985, no further pollution would be discharged into them.
It was an appealing but idealistic dream that has never quite happened, because there is no realistic way it could.
Without question, a nationwide commitment to water quality has been a good thing. Reckless practices that once relied on rivers to carry off a community’s sewage are no longer tolerated. Billions of dollars are invested in technology to meet demanding water-quality standards. Problems remain, but much progress has been made.
If pollution concerns persist, however, so does the tendency toward idealism.
In recent years in Spokane County, a broad collection of stakeholders, public and private, have negotiated over a plan to reduce phosphorus in the Spokane River. The current version sets targets that strain the capability of existing technology, yet the industries and governments whose discharges contribute significantly to the problem have accepted responsibility for spending tens of millions of dollars to mitigate it.
For some, that’s not enough, even though it would improve the quality of the river as much as state-of-the-art technology allows. The longer reasonable strategies are delayed in the hopes of dreamy but unattainable ideals, the longer it will be before real improvements can begin.
While this debate continues, a promising discussion has resumed after several years’ delay. Spokane County and some of the municipalities within its boundaries are once again talking about a regional wastewater management structure. They have met once and are scheduled to convene again Dec. 2 to talk about working together on a set of infrastructure needs that could cost $1 billion.
The trust issues that forestalled earlier attempts at regionalization haven’t disappeared, but overcoming them could be the key to efficiency and progress in improving water quality in the Spokane River. There are numerous models, including that which Olympia, Tumwater, Lacey and Thurston County have employed with acclaimed success at the south end of Puget Sound.
The state Department of Ecology would welcome such a move, but it’s up to local governments to make it happen. The pragmatic benefits of regional cooperation to protect a regional resource are great – much greater than clinging to an unreachable ideal.