Looking back at half century of the Clean Water Act
Public support, industry, natural resource management combine for cleaner river basins
he 1976 Task Force
By Eileen Persike/Josh Staloch
GREEN BAY/RHINELANDER – Imagine the Wisconsin River with sludge deposits from paper mills thick enough that small animals could walk on it and foam so high it would hide a canoe. And imagine not being able to catch a fish from a pier or a bridge because agricultural runoff depleted the river of oxygen, not only killing most fish, but leaving those that could survive full of tumors.
Some Wisconsinites — not many, just over one-third of residents alive today — don’t have to imagine those scenes; they lived it. Those who have no memory of the pollution that choked the rivers and streams were likely born after 1972 or were too young to remember. That was the year the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which marks its 50-year anniversary this year.
Dean Hoegger, president & education director, Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin, based in MAC Hall at UWGB, said the Clean Water Act enables citizens to take action when they find that corporations are polluting and the government isn’t doing enough to enforce the provisions in place.
“The importance of the Clean Water Act is reaffirmed by the fact that there are currently many environmental organizations working to enforce those provisions. Sometimes it requires lawsuits, sometimes it requires government to do things to enforce the Clean Water Act. That’s part of what the Clean Water Action Council does,” Hoegger said. “We have several ongoing petitions right now to the (Environmental Protection Agency). So, yes, The Clean Water Act is very significant and things would look very different here in Green Bay if that act hadn’t been passed many years ago.”
He said that the act is only as significant as the efforts made to enforce it.
“A very important feature of the Clean Water Act is that it allows for citizen lawsuits. The act allows citizens to sue polluters as well as government agencies. So that’s a very important feature and sort of unique to the United States, to have a law that allows citizens to sue,” he added.
The ability for citizens to sue brought about changes in how farms manage manure spreading with the implementation of NR-151, which strengthened regulations on manure spreading.
The 1976 Task Force
Bob Martini, now retired after 32 years with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, can recall those days. He was involved with the Clean Water Act from the very beginning as the head of a task force in 1976 that was charged with identifying all the water quality problems in the 400-mile long Wisconsin River Basin.
“We had lakes issues in the north. Throughout the central basin, we had paper mills. We had groundwater problems in the central sands and then all throughout the watershed, especially central and southern, was non-point source pollution from agriculture,” Martini recalled. “Those were the four main water quality problems at the time.”
The task force not only identified problems, but was required to provide recommendations on how to remedy the problems and bring the river basin into compliance with the law.
The idea throughout the country was to have as uniform as possible, general overall goals for the Clean Water Act and then states were to come up with site-specific solutions.
The goal in Wisconsin was to make every water body fishable and swimmable; two things Martini said the Wisconsin River was not.
“It was the concept of the states being the laboratory of democracy, you know, from way back,” said Martini. “This was used in environmental planning as well. The EPA pretty much took what we developed in Wisconsin and transported it all over the place because it worked.”
Any improvement would have been a major change, but the water quality today compared to 1976 is astounding, according to Martini.
“We have a full fishing guide industry on the Wisconsin River now for walleyes and northern and muskies, smallmouth bass, where fish couldn’t even survive at that time because the oxygen levels went to zero,” he said.
But what is so important, Martini noted, was not in only achieving clean water, but doing so in a way that didn’t negatively affect the economy.
“There were all kinds of myths out there that said, ‘you can’t have environmental protection without a disastrous effect on the economy.’ Just the opposite happened in the upper Wisconsin River Basin,” said Martini.
There were also concerns that a lack of technological know-how would pose a problem, Martini said. But instead, it was “technology forcing.”
“Once the regulations and goals were commonly accepted, everyone chipped in and designed what was necessary,” Martini said. “There weren’t any lawsuits against us; the industry was all with us, every month we met with them for years, ironing out what the goals were going to be and how they could achieve it and then they just did it. And a whole new water treatment industry blossomed in the state that wasn’t there before.”
Martini said he would like to see non-point source pollution from agriculture addressed in the Clean Water Act and protections to lakes added.
However, he said, there is no political appetite for adding protections at the state or federal level.
“One of the main things we learned from 50 years of the Clean Water Act is that public sentiment really matters. The only reason we had a clean water act was because a few years earlier we had this massive Earth Day celebration.”
That was seen as a huge change in public opinion, Martini said, which brought about the passage of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act.
“All those laws that were passed in the early ’70s were a result of that huge outpouring of public opinion, and it shows that it can really make a difference politically,” Martini said.
“Clean water is not only beautiful and important for biological diversity; it is also a major component of Wisconsin’s healthy economy. Protecting it under an intact CWA is more important now that ever.”