Joanne Gerson, Heather Mayfield and Ryan Mooney-Bullock are members of the Green Umbrella Watershed Action Team, a Greater Cincinnati environmental alliance.
Next time you fill your water glass or take a boat ride on the Ohio River, take a moment to think about this: There was a time in the recent past when the Ohio River was the preferred disposal location for industrial and municipal wastewater.
In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, polluted with industrial wastes, caught fire from a spark from a passing train.
On Oct 18, 1972, Congress amended what was then known as the Federal Pollution Control Act to restore our nation’s waters so that they all would be “fishable and swimmable.” Updates called for elimination of all discharges of pollutants into our nation’s waters by 1985. This law became what we know today as the Clean Water Act.
When the Clean Water Act was passed 40 years ago, less than one-third of our nation’s waterways met the criteria established in the law.
Today, over two-thirds of the nation’s waterways are considered fishable and swimmable.
An improvement, but we are sliding backwards. New discharges of “point-source” pollutants directly into our waterways are approved yearly by individual states. In addition, and a serious problem, millions of “non-point source” pollutants are carried by rainwater and snowmelt moving over the ground into rivers, lakes and streams, or directly into storm and combined sewer systems.
Most of Cincinnati’s urban core and older suburbs are connected to a combined sewer system, meaning rainwater and snowmelt combine with the sanitary sewage (what goes down your drain or toilet) into the same underground pipes before heading to the wastewater treatment plant.
On dry days, the sewage gets treated to exacting standards before being released into our rivers. When it rains, however, there is too much water in the pipes, and a large amount of it ends up overflowing into our local rivers without being treated.