The effort to clean up the nation's water has been an amazing success. The days when rivers were used as open sewers for industrial and human wastes is long past, thanks to the Clean Water Act, which in 1972 started to rein in pollution that poured out of discharge pipes.
But even as the success of the act was welcomed, other pollution continues: so-called "non-point" pollution comes from more varied sources that are harder to control. It's stormwater runoff, that carries oils, salt and sediment off of pavement during rainstorms. It's erosion that not only carries off productive soil but scours out streams, leaving them shallow, hot and inhospitable to trout. And nonpoint sources of pollution are growing more numerous, as suburban sprawl (buffeted by the subprime lending crisis that inspired so many people to buy homes they could not afford) spread across formerly untrammeled farms and forests.
Even as most of the nation's larger rivers and lakes have gotten cleaner over the years, its most pristine streams have, in many cases, become more polluted because of these diffuse forms of pollution.
And now, the Environmental Protection Agency is being held to account. While it has for several years been tackling non-point pollution through a "Phase 2" of the Clean Water Act, it had quietly written real estate development and construction out of its regulations. The Natural Resources Defense Council sued, and a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday sided with the environmental group, and against the EPA.
That's good news for the nation's streams, its fish, its fishermen and anyone who cares about the quality of our environment.
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