By Deb Ryun – 10/2012
It’s party time! The 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) turns 40 on October 18. I understand that some of you may not fully appreciate what this means, or even think it’s noteworthy. The CWA established goals for ending the release of toxic substances into water. Truly this is one of our most important national Acts for ensuring clean, plentiful water for human use and consumption. In fact, it may be one of our most important laws, including its subsequent amendments, for the protection of human health and well being.
For those of us around in the 1970s, it’s not hard to remember what rivers were like. I grew up on the Wisconsin River near the center of the state. The river was stinky, so full of trash you could almost walk on top of the water, and devoid of most fish and other aquatic life. On top of that, there were disturbing algal blooms. Parents would tell children to stay away, don’t swim in it, don’t fish in it, and if you do fish, certainly don’t eat the fish you catch. It was in 1969 that the Cuyahoga River in Ohio actually caught on fire.
The CWA had an interesting political start. There was a strong, non-partisan effort to bring the Bill forward, and with the same responsible leadership, the Bill passed handily in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. But on October 17, 1972, President Nixon vetoed the Clean Water Act. He expressed concern for “spiraling prices and increasingly onerous taxes”, including “the staggering, budget wrecking $24 billion” cost estimate associated with the bill.
Enter the interesting turn of events. The very day President Nixon rejected the bill, veto override debates ensued. On October 17 and 18, 1972 the votes by Congress weren’t even close. The Senate (52-12 to override) and the House (247-23 to override) each understood the severity of water pollution in our country, and they understood that clean water is not just important for the environment, but also crucial for human survival.
So what has it meant for rivers? Point source pollution, the pollution that originates from a single point such as a discharge pipe, is largely under control. Factories no longer send their waste and by-products downstream. Water treatment facilities have improved significantly, and continue to improve with time. Water quality has significantly improved over the last 40 years. Because of these efforts, fish have returned to the Wisconsin River, and people now host musky and walleye festivals in my home region of the state.
The news isn’t all good, though. Sadly, a national news story recently aired about blooms of blue-green algae on the Wisconsin River. Too many nutrients from nonpoint sources, such as farm fields, septic tanks, etc., are reaching our waters. People are getting sick, and dogs have died. Here in the St. Croix River watershed, under the regulations of the CWA, Lake St. Croix was declared impaired water in 2008 by the States of Minnesota and Wisconsin. The impairment is caused by excess phosphorus going into the lake, which enhances the growth of unwanted algae, which in turn changes the lake’s ecosystem and water quality. Those same blue-green algae are here in our wild and scenic river, and in many of its tributaries.
The St. Croix River Association has collaborated with other organizations and state agencies to create a restoration plan to reduce phosphorous entering our rivers. In coming months, you should hear more about the newly approved Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), a complex formula that sets a limit on the amount of phosphorus coming from regulated sources like sewage treatment plants and large cities, and from unregulated sources such as lawns, rural communities, and farm fields. The plan sets a phosphorus reduction goal of 20 percent by the year 2020. That means over 100 tons of phosphorous will have to be kept out of our water and remain in fields, lawns, and treatment plants to reach the goal. It’s what we need to do to ensure that the St. Croix and its tributaries don’t turn green.
After 40 years, it’s clear we still need the CWA. My hope is that we can remember how to work collaboratively, for the good of the many, toward the common goal of ensuring clean, clear running water for future generations. I’m looking forward to seeing how we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the CWA. My plan is to do so concurrently with the de-listing of the St. Croix River as an impaired river.