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Clearwater, Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson mark 50 years of the Clean Water Act

Dave Lucas

To mark Earth Day, three pioneering Hudson River environmental organizations are coming together to mark the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

Riverkeeper’s new President Tracy Brown, David Toman, the new Executive Director of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, and long-time Scenic Hudson President Ned Sullivan held a Zoom conversation this week with President of Oceans 8 Films and One Ocean Media Foundation Jon Bowermaster, an author, filmmaker and activist who lives in the Hudson Valley.

"I started as a as a print journalist, and 32 years ago, on this date, or on Earth Day, I published a book called 'Saving the Earth: A Citizen's Guide to Environmental Action,' " said Bowermaster. "And I get it out of Earth Day just to remind myself how we're doing the book was looked at the causes, effects and solutions to about 16 different environmental issues across, around the world. And I get out every year on Earth Day to kind of see how we're doing. And this year because of the conversation we're having today, I simply looked for freshwater in the freshwater pollution chapter. And the very number one solution, was the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act. And then a few paragraphs down it says the evidence of the state of this legislation working is the shining example of the Hudson River fishermen's Association and it's watchdog Riverkeeper. So I've been writing about this stuff, paying attention to this stuff, even though not a Hudson Valley resident until till 1988."

Bowermaster says the Clean Water Act established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. Before the Clean Water Act passed, he says many waterways were severely contaminated by sewage, trash, oil and toxic industrial pollution.

Riverkeeper's Brown says 50 years later, people finally want to get back in the river. "So when people look at things like, you know, do I have swimming beaches? Can I pull out a fish and eat it? Can I drink this water? And if the answer is no, which in too many cases it is, you really don't have to look that much far these days than your own community, and how you are engaged with the water and take that responsibility and do that hard work," Brown said.

Clearwater's Toman says the Sloop has been teaching children about the Hudson for decades and the activism that played a lead role in cleaning the waterways continues today.

"It was back in 1970 that Congress held an environmental teach-in, and the Clearwater, sailing with our founder, Pete Seeger, sailed down to the Potomac, "Toman said. "So this is a boat. This is a sloop built for what was in the 19th century, commerce along the Hudson. They sailed it out in the ocean and brought it down to and up the Potomac. And so it sailed to Congress and delivered tens of thousands of signatures, requesting that something get done. And so I think that's where, you know, activism has always played a part that that they eventually get listened to. And that took place in 1970 that helped drive the decision that was in the legislation that was passed in 1972."

Scenic Hudson's Sullivan says the Clean Water Act provided grants to states and municipalities that enabled them to build sewage treatment plants.

"The very first efforts to stop raw sewage, from going into our waterways was was financed through billions and billions of dollars of federal money that was typically matched at the state level and began to stop that discharge of raw sewage," said Sullivan. "So, you know, that's the good news. The bad news is that many states and municipalities, including those along the Hudson didn't go far enough. And didn't didn't keep investing in the wastewater infrastructure, including the systems that would prevent storm water from overflowing and going into the Hudson."

The environmental groups contend there are still pockets of pollution affecting wildlife and the river. The Hudson's troubles continue, with its signature fish declining, stressed by climate change and threats from invasive species.

The organizations say their sense of shared purpose and collaboration will continue to harness the power of the Clean Water Act and other tools to protect waterways.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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