Ky. Voices: Clean water: ignored or taken for granted; 40 years after law, vigilance still needed

Athena Kern of Lexington held a placard at the Sierra Club's "Rally for the Rivers" event near the Kentucky River in Clark County. The event called on  Gov. Steve Beshear to step up support for the federal Clean Water Act.
Athena Kern of Lexington held a placard at the Sierra Club's "Rally for the Rivers" event near the Kentucky River in Clark County. The event called on Gov. Steve Beshear to step up support for the federal Clean Water Act. Greg Kocher | Staff

The Clean Water Act was 40 years old last week. Why hold the applause?

Access to the right amount of clean water is the most serious natural resource and national security issue facing this country. The Clean Water Act is our only effective protection for that resource.

Why are the issues of clean water security and the need to strengthen the law completely missing from the election of 2012? Rising oceans and caring for creation got two mocking sentences in the two political conventions. The campaigns conveniently ignore the truth about the environment in general and clean water security in particular. Why is this?

In a curious twist of fate, the success of the CWA is its greatest threat. The CWA gets no positive attention because it is working. For 40 years the CWA has slowly changed our wastewater treatment; has affirmed the necessary role of citizens to make sure the law works as written; has gradually improved the water quality in our creeks, streams, rivers and lakes; and has kept the goal — and purpose — of eliminating the discharge of pollutants into our waters.

We have a lot to applaud. Yet, we are silent. Why are we so quiet?

On Oct. 18, 1972, two months into my first year of law school, a bipartisan Congress enacted the law. That bipartisan majority included the two senators from Kentucky, Republicans John Sherman Cooper and Thurston Morton. However, before the congressional recess last month, the House of Representatives embarrassed itself and the nation by passing 315 bills to weaken our environmental laws. Fortunately, those 315 anti-environmental actions were dead on passage. But why is the House trying to take the nation backward?

A silent public allows our politicians to talk about less important matters and encourages politicians to declare war on clean water.

We can begin to change this discussion and this direction by joining the celebration of the Clean Water Act this year. I ask you to applaud the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act by using both hands.

On the one hand, there is much to celebrate. Last Sunday, I and several others paddled up the Ohio River and into Beargrass Creek with David Wicks, president of the Kentucky Conservation Committee. Beargrass Creek never looked better. We returned to meet at the Louisville Waterfront Authority with Nancy Stoner, acting deputy administrator of water at the Environmental Protection Agency, Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District representatives and a dozen citizens.

We talked about the success of the Louisville waterfront on the Ohio and what remained to be done. We recognized Louisville's readiness to shift away from traditional gray infrastructure to green infrastructure to handle its stormwater. We received a proclamation by Louisville Mayor Gregg Fischer declaring a Clean Water Act Celebration Day in Louisville.

The Ohio River, the Louisville waterfront,and the shift toward green infrastructure are undisputable success stories of the Clean Water Act.

On the other hand, there is a lot of work to be done. Our sewage and stormwater discharges need to be cleaned up.

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from human and agricultural waste and stormwater runoff are polluting our waters.

Unfortunately, Kentucky's nutrient water quality standards are "narrative" and not "numerical," which allows for inconsistent enforcement, if any.

Similarly in Eastern Kentucky, the existing narrative conductivity standard — a measure of how streams are impacted by mining — is not being enforced and is under attack by the coal industry.

While large-scale swine and poultry facilities are required to carefully manage manure application with nutrient management plans, Kentucky only requires management for nitrogen and ignores the over-application of phosphorus, further polluting our waters.

The most obvious way you can applaud the Clean Water Act with both hands is to get them wet. Please join us to protect our waters and celebrate the Clean Water Act.