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Swimming as a basic American right

by Jay Walljasper - August 11, 2008

It's a lovely afternoon with white popcorn clouds hovering in a bright blue sky--the kind of day in which anything in the world seems possible.

I snuck away from my desk here in Minneapolis for a bike ride around Lake Harriet, which was full of swimmers gleefully enjoying the water. Indeed, I'm planning to hit the beach myself right after finishing this blog.

Still basking with this summery optimism back at my desk, I am wondering why folks everywhere can't take a refreshing plunge into local waters on a warm summer day.

My Green Guide colleagues in New York should be able to stroll over to a beach after a long day at the office. Harried secretaries in downtown Boston ought to be able to cool off while doing the backstroke in Boston Harbor. Workers in the factories along Lake Michigan deserve beachfront parks where they can splash around after punching out.

This is not an impossible dream. Actually, it's the law of the land.

In 1972 Republican president Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act, which stipulated that all American waterways should be "swimmable and fishable" by 1983.

Sadly, 57 percent of facilities governed today by the Clean Water Act exceed their pollution permits, which generally aim lower than the fishable, swimmable standards of the original law. And those facilities don't include the non-point sources of pollution, where toxic chemicals and troublesome organic matter trickles in from farm fields, lawns, parking lots, feedlots and storm sewers.

We're 25 years late on that promise to America's swimmers, anglers, boaters, waders, splashers and sand-castle builders. But that's no reason to give up on this worthy goal.

Think what a difference it would make if nearly every community across the land had access to clean, natural swimming and fishing holes. In my mind, that would come pretty close to describing "the pursuit of happiness"--Thomas Jefferson's memorable phrase in the Declaration of Independence, which changed the world with the stroke of a pen. Until then, happiness had never figured much in political discussions.

Now is the time, 232 years after the Declaration of Independence and 36 years after farsighted Congress members passed the Clean Water Act, to undertake a serious campaign to clean up our lakes, rivers, oceans, creeks, bays and gulfs.

It's an important element of the American Dream: life, liberty and the pursuit of splashing.