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Five Ways You Can Help Save Life on Earth

40 years after the first Earth Day, we're still staring down the barrel of environmental catastrophe. Here are five big approaches we can take to saving life on the planet.
 
 
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Forty years ago we were living in a different world. Ohio's Cuyahoga River had recently caught fire, nuclear testing had dispersed radioactive material across the West, California was reeling from a massive oil spill, Americans sputtered about their endless highways spewing leaded fumes as the country continued on a post-World War II path bent on industrializing food and farming while growing industry at all cost -- pollution and chemicals be damned.

Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, with the help of young organizer Denis Hayes, is credited with lighting the fuse of the modern environmental era on April 22, 1970 with the first Earth Day -- an event that garnered the support of an incredible 20 million Americans across the country.

Many Republicans and Democrats alike got on board. Government responded in the next few years by creating the Environmental Protection Agency and passing the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act, to name a few.

Yet, four decades later, we're still staring down the barrel of environmental catastrophe. Many of those same pieces of legislation have been whittled away, and although we've made massive gains in many areas we are still faced with a global climate crisis, along with food and water systems that are being pushed to the brink, and are downright failing in many places. In a recent story, Denis Hayes recollects the first Earth Day and credits the event with embracing all people who are trying to help the planet -- in any way big or small. But, Hayes says, we need to do more. The time has come for more radical action.

So what can we do? Here's five good ideas that industrious greens in our mix are already working on -- will you join in?

1. A Clean Water Trust Fund

Most people living in the U.S. are fortunate to have clean and safe drinking water available at their tap at a very low cost. We turn on the water and it comes out, we don't have to think about where that water comes from. But what many people don't know is that our water systems are on the verge of collapse. Lurking beneath our streets are 1.5 million miles of aging pipes. Food and Water Watch reports that U.S. cities have 250,000 to 300,000 water main breaks a year and we lose one-fifth of our water through leaks and contaminate our waterways with 1.2 trillion gallons of wastewater annually.

The price tag for fixing all this is going to be big. The EPA estimates that we have a potential funding gap of $150-400 billion between projected needs and current levels of spending over the next 10 years. The New York Times reported that, "There are 16,000 publicly owned wastewater treatment plants in the United States that operate 100,000 major pumping stations, 600,000 miles of sanitary sewers and 200,000 miles of storm sewers, according to U.S. EPA. That system received a grade of D- from the American Society of Civil Engineers in its latest 'Report Card for America's Infrastructure.'"

One of the reasons for this is a drop in federal funding in the last few decades. In 1978, 78 percent of money for new water infrastructure projects came from the federal government, but by 2007 that number had fallen to 3 percent. Additionally the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which many communities have relied on to help keep their water clean, has also been slashed. The federal government cut spending on this program by 66 percent from 1991 to 2007.

 
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