By Esha Ahluwalia

Upstream, Downriver is streaming for FREE between April 18 – 23 for Earth Day! Visit starting the 18th to watch this film and many other great environmental documentaries!

Coming off the heels of the fiftieth anniversary of the Clean Water Act, comes the informative and evocative film, Upstream, Downriver. Maggie Burnette Stogner, the Executive Director for American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking, directed and produced this vital film that displays several communities’ interactions with water. By placing the focus on communities who are actively facing hardships due to water quality or inadequate water infrastructure, we can see the transformative impacts that the Clean Water Act has had on real people.

Prior to the Clean Water Act, pollution, “oil sheens across water bodies, mass fish kills,” and fires were rampant in our nation’s rivers, according to Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, Executive Vice President at the National Wildlife Federation. As the nation observed this, there was outcry from both sides of the aisle. It was then that Congress, with a bipartisan vote, passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. This transformative law acted as a revolutionary commitment to restoring the environment and replenishing our waters. The Clean Water Act, as Tom Jorling, a former EPA Assistant Administrator, put it, it “changed the whole relationship between the polluter and the government.”

Along with these interviews, this film takes us through the stories of five communities who are working on-the-ground with water.

Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper since 2004, has a strong desire to turn back power to the hands of citizens and spends his days rallying the energy, or “the forces needed, to really protect these rivers.” As the first river to use the Clean Water Act to compel the state to protect it, the Patuxent stands as a shining example of how this law provides tangible results. Although the Patuxent River has become measurably cleaner and more habitable, the river is starting to decline again due to an increase of development and runoff. “The Patuxent is the only river in Maryland history that has been substantially brought back to health only to see those gains lost again.” As the Patuxent approaches its worst-case scenario once again, we must rally support to restore the river. As Senior Legislative Counsel for Earthjustice, Julian Gonzalez, stated, “the Clean Water Act doesn’t really do a good job regulating runoff, which is when things like manure from farms or phosphorus from large agricultural operations or bacteria from having a bunch of cows or pigs in a field, goes into the ground and into rivers and wetlands and things like that. That’s where most of the pollution comes these days.” This shows us an area of the Clean Water Act that is currently failing: we don’t have federal oversight for runoff and most states also do not have this regulation put in place for this type of pollution. This is extremely harmful as it produces toxic algal outbreaks that can kill smaller animals, cause declines in fish populations, and send a person to the hospital, even from simply touching it. The Clean Water for All Coalition runs a Nutrient Pollution Work Group which actively advocates for policies that reduce pollution from agriculture and factory farming

In the Mobile Bay Watershed of Alabama, Catherine Coleman Flowers, the Founding Director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, fights for the introduction of competent wastewater systems. “The wastewater issue in Lowndes county is really where people never got access to basic sanitation in the first place, or they have failing septic systems, or they’re living next to sewage lagoons where everybody’s waste goes into a pond.” In this community, 90% of the systems are failing no matter how old or new they are, and 33% of the community tested positive for hookworm, a disease that was thought to have been eradicated in the US until recently. In the film we see the EPA Administrator, the Assistant Administrator, and the Secretary of Agriculture coming out to the community to demonstrate that they share the same concerns and will work to address this issue under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which is injecting millions of dollars into infrastructure projects to address concerns like this. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but we need further overarching federal action. The Clean Water for All Coalition has a Water Infrastructure Work Group that works toward significantly increasing equitable federal funding for our nation’s water infrastructure and advancing federal policy work. We must actively seek out opportunities to help real communities receive the funding they need to adopt healthy and clean water infrastructure.

As we have seen in Upstream, Downriver, the Clean Water Act has been a vital tool in protecting our waters and the health of our communities, but we still have a ways to go to ensure every community has access to clean, safe water. This documentary highlights the success and limitations of the Clean Water Act as well as steps foot into real communities across the country. If you haven’t yet had a chance to view the film, there’s good news! For Earth Day, the DC Environmental Film Festival is streaming many of their films for FREE. All you need to do is visit between April 18 – 23 and search for Upstream, Downriver to watch.

If you represent an organization that wants to get more involved in advocating for stronger federal clean water protections under the Clean Water Act, please fill out this form to join the Clean Water for All Coalition and bring your voice to this work!

If you would like to do a screening of Upstream, Downriver for your organization, community, or members, you can reach out to American University to host a screening here.

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