The Clean Water Act turned a tide of abuse and neglect for rivers and lakes, transforming the attitude of millions of Americans who now take to the water in record numbers.
The Clean Water Act provided the basis for implementation of pollution control programs by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and made it a violation of federal law to discharge any pollutant into a navigable waterway unless a permit was obtained from the federal EPA.
Rome didn’t have a wastewater treatment facility until 1966. Up to that time, wastewater was going straight into the rivers. When the first plant was opened, Rome Water and Sewer division Director Leigh Ross estimates that it took maybe 80 percent of the pollutants out of the water.
Since the act was passed in 1972, Ross estimates that Rome has spent at least $150 million on sewage treatment programs. Rome’s wastewater treatment plant, 212 Black’s Bluff Road, has seen three major upgrades.
“If I had a choice between drinking water out of the Coosa River or drinking the effluent out of the Rome wastewater treatment plant, I’d drink the water out of the wastewater plant,” Ross said.
The Clean Water Act has been a game changer in terms of improving the nation’s waterways.
“It’s a prime example of something that had to be done,” said Eric Lindberg, environmental planner for Rome and Floyd County. “You had the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching on fire and you had rivers being used as sewers. We had reached a point where we just couldn’t keep doing business as usual, dumping stuff in the rivers and letting Mother Nature take care of things.”
The act also laid the groundwork for the establishment of water quality standards for virtually every major waterway across the country.
“A lot of what the Coosa River Basin Initiative is able to accomplish is because the Clean Water Act is in place,” said Joe Cook, CRBI executive director. “Our rivers are much healthier than they were 40 years ago.”
Industries and small local governments have assailed some of the regulations that have been developed as a result of the Clean Water Act.
Cook said that when the Georgia Environmental Protection Division completes regulations for various nutrients and compounds in the Coosa River, he wouldn’t be surprised if Plant Hammond, International Paper and even the city of Rome aren’t going to be forced to spend additional funds for advanced treatments of wastewater.
Ross said limits on phosphorous will not be as expensive to Rome as those for dissolved oxygen. Ross estimates that improvements associated with potential phosphorous rules will cost the city a couple hundred thousand on capital improvements and about $100,000 annually on chemicals.
“When the TMDL (total maximum daily load) on dissolved oxygen goes into effect, I can see us spending $10 million on capital and then maybe a quarter of a million a year for operational costs,” Ross said.
He said most of the toxic and heavy metal pollutants are removed during pre-treatment required of the individual industries. In terms of normal organic pollution, Rome’s wastewater treatment plant removes about 95 percent of the pollutant
In spite of the law, Lindberg said people still use lakes and rivers as a dumping ground.
“We’re still not in the right mindset to think that what we’re doing has that big of an impact,” Lindberg said. “It costs society, everybody ends up paying, even people who don’t use goods and services from a given company”
Perhaps coincidentally to the timing of the anniversary of the Clean Water Act, CRBI, Keep Rome-Floyd Beautiful, Keep Bartow Beautiful and the Rome-Floyd E.C.O. River Education Center are sponsoring a cleanup of the Etowah River this Saturday all the way from the Allatoona Dam into Rome then down the Coosa River to Mayo’s Bar Lock & Dam.