By Hedrick Belin
Fifty years ago, I'm told that if you took a boat out on the Potomac near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, you would encounter a thick green algae mat stretching from shoreline to shoreline. And although the nation's river hadn't caught on fire, it was called a "national disgrace" by President Lyndon Johnson.
You would find similar situations along stretches of the Shenandoah River as well. There was a clear call from concerned citizens for the federal government to act, resulting in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 - 40 years ago this week.
Now we move forward a generation. Today, much of the pollution coming out of industrial pipes and sewage treatment plants has been stopped. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, we've made improvements.
But we have greater challenges in some ways when it comes to clean water than we did in the 1970s. Now the pollution is coming from diffuse sources, flowing across the land when it rains. The pollution is harder to see, and its effects are more difficult to detect.
But we know the pollution is there. More than 80 percent of the male smallmouth bass in the Shenandoah have eggs - a condition called intersex. And no one knows what the longterm effect on human health will be for the 5.6 million of us who depend on the Shenandoah and the Potomac for our drinking water.
Over the past three years, Virginia state government and local governments have developed comprehensive plans to reduce pollution. In addition, there are specific numeric pollution reduction targets that must be achieved.
This blueprint to clean up the Shenandoah, Potomac, and thousands of rivers and streams is just a document describing what the future could look like. Now the hard work starts.
Local governments must employ the blueprint to guide on-the-ground improvements in our communities. When the blueprint is implemented, you will see more trees and green spaces. You'll experience less flooding when it rains.
You will be able to eat the fish you catch without health concerns.
We've already had some successes. For example, the state has invested in best management practices that resulted in farmers reducing nitrogen by nearly 3 million pounds. And the Conservancy worked with Shenandoah County to modify zoning ordinances to protect its rural quality of life, which also will protect local streams and creeks.
Creating healthy communities will take more than government action alone. The implementation of the clean water blueprint will require communities and concerned citizens to speak up forcefully and consistently for clean water. To safeguard the rivers in Virginia and their surrounding lands, we must build an army of people throughout the commonwealth taking action. Our rivers need people to speak up - to speak up at any table where decisions are being made that affect a river's health.
In addition, we must elect more leaders - both Democrats and Republicans - who will stand up for clean water and support the investments required to keep our waters safe for drinking, swimming and fishing.
It's going to be a big fight. It's a fight we are going to win. It's a fight we must win so that in 2050, the next generation will gather to celebrate our actions and accomplishments, just the way we celebrate the progress made possible by the leadership of the previous generation.
Hedrick Belin is president of the Potomac Conservancy.