The Olympics brought considerable attention to Rio Sarapuí, a 20-mile river that twists through one of Brazil’s largest cities before emptying in Guanabara Bay.
Beginning in the mountain jungles high above Rio de Janiero, the river winds steadily downhill through crowded urban sprawl. As it weaves between neighborhoods and alleyways, past front doors and open windows, the river picks up raw sewage and garbage—refuse created and disposed of by the millions of people who live along its degraded shores.
Rio Sarapuí is actually only one of around 50 rivers and streams that drain into the great Guanabara Bay. All together, these waterways form a network of mistreated channels that have been contaminating the bay and polluting the local coastline for years.
Although the city of Rio promised to capture and treat at least 80% of the sewage that flows daily into Guanabara Bay prior to the Olympics, ultimately this goal was not met.
Amidst dismayed reports railing on the state of Rio Sarapuí and Rio’s other waterways however, it seemed odd that environmentalists failed to use the media moment to comment on the state of our own waterways in the United States as well.
The U.S. is far from a poster child of environmental stewardship when it comes to caring for our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. In some areas, pollution levels remain downright awful. Examining troubled pockets around our nation, it becomes clear that environmental laws and regulations have not been honored and upheld, particularly the Clean Water Act.
In the United States, during heavy rains and snow, combined city sewers often fill to capacity. If these sewers are pushed to overflow, storm water and untreated sewage flow directly into nearby waterways. Called “combined sewer overflows” (CSOs), these events pollute the nation’s rivers, lakes, and bays with human and industrial waste, toxins, and debris. Currently, the EPA calls CSOs a “major water pollution concern” for nearly 772 U.S. cities, including New York City. Given this disturbing statistic, clearly Rio is not the only municipality suffering from the infiltration of human waste into its waterways and the ocean.
New York City treats dry weather flows of 1,805 million gallons daily. However, the municipality still annually releases over 27 billion gallons of untreated wastewater directly into its waterways each year. Currently, only 72% of CSO discharges are captured in New York City, despite almost $2.1 billion in spending by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in the past 10 years on CSO control. Frighteningly, many neighborhoods still possess sewers that carry street runoff unabashedly directly into local rivers, streams, and bays.
It should come as no surprise, given these revelations, that the water quality among ocean areas surrounding NYC can be atrocious. A member of the Empire Dragon Boat racing team described Flushing Bay to CityLimits.org as “pretty gross,” explaining that, “there’s usually stuff floating on top of it. Some is identifiable trash that you’d rather see in a bathroom waste bin. It often smells.”
Alley Creek, situated in Queens, currently receives over 134 million gallons of CSO overflow each year. Deemed “unswimmable” by the city, New York has so far dragged its feet in addressing the issue. Although the city and state signed off on a consent order that was supposed to commit New York City to CSO reduction deadlines, the city has failed to meet those deadlines again and again, updating and altering the consent order every couple of years instead. Even if Alley Creek were to be freed of CSO runoff, the city argues, the creek would remain unswimmable as a result of poisonous influxes from other sources of pollution.
Given this analysis, the city chose the cheapest CSO reduction plan on the table for the area (chlorinating water held in a retention tank before releasing it into the creek). The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has protested, arguing that the city’s “Long Term Control Plans” and the stipulations of the Clean Water Act (waterways should be fishable/swimmable whenever attainable) are not fully being honored, stating that the city is still required to aim for the highest level of cleanliness possible.
Of course, New York City is not alone, and rural areas can struggle as much (if not more) with issues of water cleanliness and safety. In fact, my home state of Iowa has absolutely dismal water quality. Traveling through British Columbia and down through Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada this summer, I was struck by the clarity and cleanliness of the local rivers and streams. Driving back into Iowa, the muddy, contaminated ribbons of water that we passed filled me with certain sense of rage.
Only 3% of monitored waterways in Iowa are classified as being in “excellent” condition, while the rest of our rivers and streams languish somewhere between “fair” and “very poor”. Environment America reports that Iowa waterways are contaminated by nearly 6,602,493 pounds of total toxic discharge. Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. and Cargill Meat Solutions Corp remain the largest contributors to the problem, releasing nearly 2 million pounds of toxic waste annually into our rivers and streams.
This is not merely a local issue. Factory farms across the country generate between 500 million to 1 billion pounds of manure each year, leaking nitrogen, phosphorous, hormones, and harmful pathogens into the nation’s waterways. However, non-point pollution (particularly in the form of soil runoff, fertilizer, and manure from agricultural areas) is the largest source of water pollution in Iowa, and yet it remains largely unregulated. In fact, the number of Iowa lakes, rivers and streams deemed “impaired” by the Department of Natural Resources has increased by 15% between 2013 and 2015.
Over 600,000 people in Iowa have access only to water classified as “at risk”. This is a disgrace.
The capitol city of Des Moines finally decided it had had enough, and in 2015 the Des Moines Water Works said they would sue three neighboring counties for polluting the Racoon and Des Moines Rivers with dangerously high levels of nitrate. Filtering nitrate in an effort to make local water safe for drinking costs Des Moines annually over $900,000.
While farmers could mitigate the issue by creating “pollution traps,” such as ponds or wetlands to help filter runoff (or better yet, switch to sustainable farming practices), financial incentives and technical support are needed to move environmental awareness and action forward.
We are a nation of incredible water resources, from the mighty Mississippi River to the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, to gurgling streams and placid ponds. In a time of climate change, drought, and an ever-increasing human population, it’s time we thought seriously about how we protect and preserve these waterways and irreplaceable habitat areas. I hope that we’ll take what we saw in Rio as a reminder of our own domestic environmental policies and regulatory failures. I hope we’ll continue to work to do better. I hope the kind of activism and determination that culminated in the Clean Water Act will carry into the future, uplifted on a new generation committed to local, regional, and national activism.