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Earth Day Action: Clean Water for Swimming

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Triathletes need clean, safe water for swimming.  As we huddle in our wetsuits on chilly shores early in the morning, we often think about things we can’t control: the water temperature, the current, not getting kicked in the face. But on this Earth Day, here’s one thing we should not have to worry about: getting sick from sewage and runoff pollution in the water.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that up to 3.5 million people become ill each year from contact with sewage pollution. Contamination of the water, when detected in time, sometimes means that we can’t use the water at all. In 2011, there were as many as 23,481 days of beach closings and advisories.[i] Imagine spending months training for a triathlon, only to show up and find out that pollution has closed the swimming area, cancelling the event.

Of all the goals of our nation’s Clean Water Act, perhaps the one that matters most to us is the vow to make all of our rivers, lakes, and other waters “swimmable” by 1983. Unfortunately, 20 years after that deadline, many of our waters are still plagued by billions of gallons of sewage overflows and runoff.

A root cause of these pollution problems: asphalt and concrete surfaces prevent stormwater from naturally infiltrating into the soil. These materials create swift conduits for grease, toxins, and all kinds of bacteria, depositing them directly into our waterways, or flooding the capacity of our sewer systems, forcing the release of unprocessed sewage into our waters.

Solutions: fix our aging sewage infrastructure, design new buildings to minimize runoff pollution and retrofit existing development to do the same.  Several cities and states are already taking some of these steps. The city of Philadelphia has instituted a precedent-setting program to retrofit downtown buildings using rainbarrels, rooftop gardens and other techniques designed to reduce this pollution. Rhode Island and Maryland have passed landmark standards to curb runoff pollution from new development. We need to build on these successes, and ensure that all of America’s waters are protected by them.

That’s why several environmental advocacy groups, including Environment America, are calling on the government to take the following steps now to keep the water we swim in clean and healthy: 1) introduce new, enforceable standards to curb runoff pollution this year; 2) advocate for full funding for sewage system repairs; and 3) complete EPA’s work to ensure that every river, stream, lake, and other waterway in America is once again fully protected by the Clean Water Act.

If anyone should be speaking up for Clean Water on Earth Day, it should be we who swim in it. Let’s take action to keep our water clean and safe.

John Rumpler and Leslie Feldman-Rumpler Gabbé: John Rumpler is a senior attorney at Environment America, a federation of state-based citizen supported environmental advocacy groups in 29 states. His sister Leslie is a USA Triathlon member, gearing up for her next race in Cohasset, Mass. 



[i] NRDC “Testing the Waters” (2012) http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/default.asp

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