Clean Water Rules Provide for Safe Whitewater Boating

Whitewater Canoing on the Youghiogheny River in Maryland

Youghiogheny River, MD | Jeff Macklin

I started whitewater canoeing 35 years ago. I’ve paddled hundreds of rivers over thousands of trips. I can only recall abandoning a planned trip for two reasons, OK three— once I had to carry my boat out in pieces once after shredding it in a rock sieve. The other two: insurmountable wind conditions for my strength and pollution. This story is about pollution. The other stories can be saved for the camp fire.

While I started boating six years after the Clean Water Act  was passed with the noble goal of ensuring that all waters were fishable and swimmable, I still boat rivers that are not habitable for healthy fish or safe for swimmers. For me, the evidence is a variety of ailments I’ve endured over the years, from minor ear aches to life threatening infections from cuts because of immersion in river water.

Those ailments have made me leery of boating rivers with known or physically evident pollution. Some are on my personal ‘black list’ and others I’ve boated once or twice and then sworn off. There’s a fun river in Tennessee that was marked by warnings from Greenpeace about dioxin—I paddled it twice but washed my gear when I got home. Another southern gem in North Carolina used to carry a foot or so of brown froth on the water’s surface when high water washed agricultural waste. I committed myself to looking for other creeks after a big rain.

In Pennsylvania, I visit a local creek despite the visible trash, a noticeable stink from a wastewater treatment facility, and a legacy of industrial pollution – although I refuse to practice my rolls. Hundreds of rivers and thousands of trips; numerable excellent experiences, yet these few rivers and trips and a handful more like them are etched in my mind for reasons I’d prefer never existed.

The good news—my local Pennsylvania creek, although still not clean enough for me to welcome getting wet, is demonstrably cleaner than a decade ago because of the diligent efforts of local interests working to utilize the rules and regulations that exist under the Clean Water Act.

I’ve seen firsthand evidence of this law at work on a trip with friends on a creek in West Virginia. We launched onto a creek colored orange by acid mine drainage (AMD), then a short distance later a tributary dumped in gray water tainted by aluminum. Around a bend and into the next eddy, limestone was dumped in to neutralize the AMD pollution. A few rapids later, the river ran clear.

I know this river runs clean because over time the diligence of those that cared about clean water developed rules to limit aluminum discharge levels and institute technology to clean existing AMD and practices to prevent future AMD.

Now I work with diligent colleagues to address one of the leading sources of pollution keeping us from a fishable-swimmable goal: stormwater runoff. Lawmakers amended the Clean Water Act in 1987 to ensure that stormwater runoff from urban areas was controlled through pollution permits. Now those rules, as most rules do, are undergoing updates.

The EPA is currently working to update its stormwater programs to manage stormwater runoff onsite, encouraging the use of innovative practices such as green infrastructure. This rule will work to better target sources of pollution and reduce pollution from already built and urbanized areas.

When new stormwater rules begin to cause green infrastructure practices to become more prevalent, I will be sure to return to a couple of my favorite urban rivers along the fall line in Virginia. I know the improvements come slowly but rule making ensures that boaters can experience change toward clean water rapid by rapid and river by river across the nation.