American rivers are no longer treated as raw sewage and industrial waste dumping grounds. The Cuyahoga River no longer catches fire. Lake Erie has been resurrected (mostly) from the dead. All thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972.
But, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's 2008-2009 National Rivers and Stream Assessment, U.S. rivers aren't out of the woods just yet.
The report found that 55 percent of U.S. rivers and streams are in poor condition biologically and only 21 percent are in good health.
While the causes of poor river health can be many, the EPA report noted that the biggest culprits are nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus.
Normal amounts of nutrients may be good for rivers and aquatic life, but too much of a good thing increases algae growth, which decreases oxygen needed by other aquatic life.
The excess nitrogen and phosphorus, common ingredients in fertilizers, are coming from farms, livestock feeding operations, cities and sewers.
The report also found that 9 percent of waterways contained bacteria levels high enough to be a threat to human health, and it reaffirmed the high levels of mercury in fish in thousands of miles of U.S. rivers.
Surely we can do better. The Clean Water Act brought us a long way, but there's more to be done.
Yes, it costs money to keep our rivers clean and healthy. But it would cost considerably more to let them degrade further.
-- Loveland (Colo.) Daily Reporter-Herald