Arkansas Ozark Waterkeeper, Inc., exists to help insure that treasured waterways receive the protections needed to keep them healthy, safe and beautiful. Throughout history, moving water has been used by humans in various ways, but all too often water has been seen as a way to get rid of problematic substances like sewerage, animal waste, industrial by-products and chemical and organic matter. As a result, many American rivers were severely damaged, with fish kills, species die-offs, water unsafe for human contact and even poisonous for wildlife. A river in Ohio was so polluted with petroleum bi-products that it actually caught on fire!
Almost fifty years ago, congress recognized that legislation was needed to provide regulation and protection for the network of rivers and streams all across our country. The Clean Water Act was passed with bipartisan support as people joined in recognizing the vital role of clean, safe water. Industries were forced to stop dumping waste in nearby waterways via pipes, called point source pollution. Fines were imposed to compel compliance. Corporate polluters complained but they complied, and within a decade American rivers were recovering from centuries of abuse.
But regulation is only effective if it's enforced. Imagine what our highways would look like if there was never any chance of being pulled over for speeding. So even as our rivers were recovering and the fish and other aquatic creatures vital for healthy waterways were rebounding, special interest groups were looking for ways to get around the regulations or weaken them. In the same way that river health can be degraded gradually with little notice, regulations and enforcement can also be undermined, altered and weakenen in incremental steps that don't seem important but which can end up undoing all that the Clean Water Act set out to do.
Without public awareness and action, special interests and their well-funded lobbyists will continue to find ways to use our shared water resources as a shortcut to higher profits. The recent fight to rid the Buffalo River Watershed of a polluting industrial hog operation demonstrated how a huge corporation was able to get around environmental protections and permitting requirements. Many Arkansans were apalled at how easily a 2500 head hog confined feeding operation (CAFO) could be permitted and built where it was destined to impact a National River, without anyone, even the National Park Service, being aware of the threat. Without the sustained efforts of grassroots groups and ordinary citizens, that CAFO could well have been just the first of many planned CAFOs in that area.
Our work, then, is to be vigilent for the health and safety of our waterways, to be a resource for the public when people see or hear about potential threats to their favorite river or stream. Because one thing is sure, those who wish to profit from polluting will not stop trying to circumvent the protections in place, or try to weaken them.