Clean Water Act Turns 40 – Progress Made, More Needed

Environment Minnesota

Today, October 18, 2012, marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a landmark environmental law.  The Clean Water Act was enacted after years of citizen outrage about massive and persistent water pollution across the country.  Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted it even repeatedly caught on fire.
Samantha Chadwick, Preservation Advocate with Environment Minnesota, described the problems we are facing in Minnesota today in terms of water quality: “Today, we have come a long way from rivers catching on fire.  But we face a new set of problems. Thanks to two polluter-driven court cases, too many of our waterways are currently unprotected under the Clean Water Act.  In fact here in Minnesota about half of our streams may be unprotected from pollution under the Clean Water Act, risking the health of tens of thousands of miles of streams, and many of our wetlands.”

Congressman Jim Oberstar, who served Minnesota in the US Congress from 1975 until 2011, helped craft the Clean Water Act as a congressional staffer before he was himself elected, and clean water is an issue he continues to advocate for. Today on the anniversary, Rep. Oberstar reflected: “Forty years ago, Congress came together, on an overwhelming bipartisan basis, to enact the Clean Water Act over the veto of President Nixon. This monumental effort established a national commitment to ‘restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters’ — not just its navigable waters. Yet, as two recent decisions of Supreme Court have evidenced, the gains this Nation has made in improving water quality, as well as the public health and economic benefits associated with clean rivers and streams, can be squandered without a renewed national commitment. Recently, progress in meeting the goal of ‘fishable and swimmable’ waters has slowed and, unfortunately, may be slipping in the wrong direction. Now is not the time to be content with complacency; we must redouble our efforts to ensure we leave a better world for our children and our children’s children.”

Chadwick outlined another big challenge for water quality going forward: “increasingly, polluted runoff flowing off the land and into our waterways is ruining our rivers and streams. About half of tested waterways in the state are considered ‘impaired’ and don’t meet basic pollution standards. Many waterways are no longer safe for fishing and swimming. Much of the pollution problem is sediment loading, or eroded dirt that fills in waterways. In addition, nutrients in the form of phosphorus and nitrogen runoff into waterways and cause problems like excess algae blooms that harm other aquatic life and clog up waterways. Many of our rivers are experiencing this problem, but Lake Pepin, along the Mississippi River, is a poster child for our water quality crisis in Minnesota. Each year, one million metric tons of sediment fills in the river from the south end of the of the metro area to Lake Pepin. That’s like the volume of a downtown city block filled over the height of the Foshay Tower (454 feet)!“

“It’s time to build on 40 years of progress. The EPA should restore Clean Water Act protections to all streams, and leaders in the state of Minnesota need to move forward with science-based clean up plans to restore water quality in our threatened waterways.”

Rich Radtke, a farmer in Kerhoven, MN, participates in local efforts to reduce pollution into the Chippewa River and its tributaries. “We’re moving to a more holistic way of farming, we have about 66% perennials or grass pasture on our farm, which helps us do our part. The important thing to realize is that you don’t have to change your lifestyle to do this. Everyone can and should do their part.”