Wednesday, April 22, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Near-term, it seems like we have a lot of other things to worry about. Long-term, I see a success story that continues to guide steady, lasting improvements across the board. It’s a story worth remembering, especially now.
The first Earth Day came about due to the efforts of Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. He had been troubled by deteriorating environmental conditions including the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. In what stands as the third largest oil spill after Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez, that damage stretched from Pismo Beach to Mexico. Joined by Republican Rep. Pete McClosky and activist Denis Hayes, the 1970 event turned out 20 million Americans, which was 10% of the population. Within several years, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and pesticide regulations that still stand today were all created. Yes, climate change looms large today, but imagine where we would be without these first, important steps.
In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire. It was so polluted that a spark caught it on fire then, and 13 times before. Untreated raw sewage discharges were common in many waterways at the time. They are prohibited now. According to the National Resources Defense Council, industry-specific discharge standards now prevent 700 billion pounds of toxic pollutants from being discharged each year.
The nation’s first air quality regulator, the Los Angeles Air Pollution Control District, had to deal with people burning trash in their backyards and unregulated factories, coupled with uncontrolled vehicle emissions. The state Air Resources Control Board was formed in 1967, and it required improvements. Smog checks started in 1984. We had 145 days of unhealthy air in 2017 compared to 200 in the late 1980s. I remember coming back from bike rides unable to take a deep breath after training or racing during smog alerts. Over the years, our warning thresholds have lowered, so even “smog days” aren’t as smoggy as they used to be. Though smog is made worse by our climate and geography, and varies with the weather, in 2000 we had no Stage One smog alerts compared to 42 days in 1990.
There are plentiful animal success stories. The American symbol, the bald eagle, had only 412 nesting pairs in the U.S. in the 1950s, and today there are thought to be 70,000 of the birds. Grey wolves were once native to much of North America, Europe and Asia but were nearly exterminated in the United States. Washington State and Oregon saw wild wolf births in 2008, the first in either state since the 1930s. There were only 22 total California Condors in the U.S. 30 years ago. Today there are more than 500, including in our local mountains.
According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, “from 1980 to 2014 U.S. energy use increased by 26%; however, over the same period, gross domestic product (GDP) increased 149%.” The average fuel economy for cars was under 15 mpg in 1975, today it exceeds 30 mpg. Trucks were near 10 mpg in 1975, and today approach 25 mpg. A 60-watt incandescent bulb run for 25,000 hours uses 1,500 kilowatt hours (kwh) of energy. An equivalent LED uses 213 kwh and saves about $145 over its lifespan.
Locally, our community population has grown by 10% since 2010, but water use has declined by 6.3% due to water efficiency and conservation. Thirty percent of SCV Water’s electric demand is provided by renewable energy projects, saving 22.7 million pounds of carbon dioxide over the project lifetime. The city of Santa Clarita has impressive results, too. River Rally has removed more than 450,000 pounds of trash from the river to date. Ninety-two percent of construction and demolition debris has been recycled. A recent streetlight conversion project that will place LEDs instead of the current high-pressure sodium lamps will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60%.
None of these measures were perfect. None accomplished everything that needs to be done. But slow and steady progress has indeed been progress. Not bad compared to 50 years ago when the EPA didn’t even exist.
May we all celebrate Earth Day on April 22, and every day.
Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.