Clean Water Act Turns Fifty, but Protections Could Dry Up

The South Platte River is protected by the Clean Water Act.
The South Platte River is protected by the Clean Water Act. Walk Ride Colorado Facebook page
The Clean Water Act turned fifty on October 16. But its vision of preventing toxic pollutants from entering the nation’s waterways is in jeopardy as enforcement lags and the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether the act’s authority protects sources of water that aren't navigable.

The Colorado Public Interest Research Network Foundation (CoPIRG) partnered with the Environment America Research & Policy Center to analyze the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, the federal database that tracks the disclosures of pollutants released each year by industrial and federal facilities. Using the most recently available data, the study found that 22 Colorado facilities on the list poured 1.3 million pounds of chemicals into the state’s waterways in 2020.

“Too often, polluters continue to recklessly dispose of these toxic chemicals,” says Alex Simon, a public health advocate with CoPIRG.

The Clean Water Act's original goal was to eliminate direct discharges of pollution by 1985, but facilities such as Cargill Meat Solutions, Leprino Foods, the U.S. Army at Fort Carson, Molson Coors and Suncor still release chemicals straight into Colorado's water. The risks presented by these chemicals include increased cancer in the general population and adverse developmental effects on children.

“Also, a bunch of chemicals called nitrate compounds account for more than 90 percent of all the chemicals released in this report by volume,” Simon says, noting that the compounds make their way into larger bodies of water and create dead zones that can be harmful to wildlife, too.

The EPA didn't require the reporting of PFAS chemicals, sometimes referred to as "forever" chemicals, until 2020. This study found that PFAS are being discharged in Colorado, as well as other parts of the nation’s water supply. “It is a newer area that’s come under scrutiny, but we do know that even a small amount can be linked to health problems," Simon notes. "Health advocates advocate for one drop in twenty Olympic swimming pools as a maximum limit."

The Clean Water Act has come under scrutiny in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court heard arguments on October 3: The Sackett family wanted to build a cabin on land in Idaho that contains wetlands protected by the EPA, which the agency argues are protected under the Clean Water Act, while the Sackett side contends that wetlands are not navigable waters that qualify for the act's protections.

If the court rules against the EPA, any waterway that isn’t continuously wet could lose protection. One estimate contends that in the Southwest, 80 percent of waterways would be at risk. The EPA has long held that any water source that contributes to the nation’s traditionally navigable waters falls under Clean Water Act protections; even if a stream dries up at times, failure to protect it could impact the degradation of the system as a whole.
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Autumn fishing along the Gunnison River.
Unsplash / Jarrett Mills
Some have argued that interpretation gives the EPA too much authority. But Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser submitted a brief in the case, arguing that the EPA’s definition should remain in place.

“Water is intricately connected to our way of life in Colorado,” he said in a statement to Westword. “For fifty years, the Clean Water Act has carefully balanced state and federal interests in setting and enforcing minimum standards for water quality protection. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Sackett case threatens to undermine this balance by preventing responsible regulations to protect Colorado’s water.”

His office is working to avoid such a result and keep Colorado’s water quality high enough for recreation, wildlife conservation, ranching, farming and drinking, Weiser added.

But at least Colorado's waterways are less polluted than those of some other states, according to the CoPIRG study. Parts of South Carolina, Texas and Alabama showed some of the highest levels. Still, Simon says, Colorado’s total of 1.3 million pounds of chemicals released into waterways leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Based on the study, CoPIRG issued recommendations for how that improvement could take place. They include requiring industrial facilities to stop using toxic chemicals and switch to safer alternatives when available, and encouraging the EPA to update and expand pollution standards to include more chemicals and stricter limits.

“Polluters shouldn’t be able to use Colorado’s waterways as a dumping ground,” Simon says. “As the Clean Water Act turns fifty, we should be moving forward, not backward.”
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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