How 50 years of the Clean Water Act changed the Wisconsin River
This October marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act — a federal law that promised to restore fishable, swimmable water to shores across the country. What’s changed since then? And what’s in store for the future?
A blue heron stands still and silent next to the Hat Rapids Dam on a rocky bank of the Wisconsin River. Its long neck curves like the letter S, as it cranes this way and that through droplets of an icy drizzle.
From the opposite shore, Bob Martini spots the bird. He points to it.
“They wouldn’t be here if there weren’t fish,” he says. “I mean, that’s what they live on.”
Martini is a retired employee from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He has spent his lifetime leading an effort to clean the Wisconsin River.
So, he knows that 50 years ago, that blue heron would not have been here because 50 years ago there were not many fish in this stretch of the Wisconsin River.
“Back in 1970, this entire flowage was covered with sludge,” he says. “It decomposed at the bottom, formed gases and raised all that sludge to the surface. Then it dried as a crust on the surface. It was all the way across, all the way up as far as you could see. Small animals could walk right across it.”
This scene was not unique to the Hat Rapids Flowage or even to the Wisconsin River.
The Potomac River in Washington D.C. was filled with fowl-smelling sewage.
And in 1969, the oily surface of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire.
The river blaze was extinguished in 30 minutes, but it sparked a national conversation about water pollution that lasted years.
Passage of the Clean Water Act
Congress overwhelmingly passed the Clean Water Act three years later in 1972.
“Nixon vetoed it about midnight on the 17th of October. Two hours later both the Senate and the House overrode his veto,” Martini says. “Obviously, it was an overwhelming rejection of the concept of vetoing clean water.”
The Clean Water Act propelled a flurry of action — legislators updated state laws, engineers developed new technology, biologists monitored waterways.
But the responsibility of stopping river pollution ultimately fell to the biggest polluters. In Wisconsin, that was paper mills.
In an industry driven by profit, environmental concerns took a back seat.
“The leader of the paper industry, George Mead, owner of Consolidated Papers, a $7 billion company, started out on our first meeting, he stood up and he held up a beaker of effluent from his waste treatment plant and took a drink of it and said, ‘if it’s good enough for me it’s good enough for the Wisconsin River,’” Martini remembers. “And he was the leader so everybody else said ‘yeah, we don’t want to do anything either.’”
A year later though, George Mead changed his mind. He ordered his technical director to design a water treatment plant to put out half the pollutants the DNR required.
It was a move led by profit; the new technology would enable the mill to operate more efficiently.
But Mead had another motive too.
“His little granddaughter told him she didn’t want to visit because it smelled bad. He lived on an island in the Wisconsin River, and it smelled bad,” Martini says.
Paper mills up and down the Wisconsin River followed Mead’s lead.
In the end, the mills paid out $325 million in treatment costs. They cut pollution by 93 percent.
“No mills went out of state. No mills went out of business,” Martini says. “People didn’t lose their jobs. We’re still the number one paper manufacturing state in America.”
The next 50 years
The Wisconsin River has largely recovered in the 50 years since the Clean Water Act passed.
It now boasts a healthy fish population and the animals that eat those fish, like otters and eagles have rebounded.
But the next 50 years, Martini says, will have its own challenges to contend with, starting with agricultural run-off.
“The Clean Water Act contained no control for agriculture,” he says. “The Wisconsin River is polluted with phosphorus and other nutrients that allow really excessive algae blooms, so thick it looks like slump, like concrete.”
That’s in addition to removing trace toxic materials, the byproducts of industry that are too small to be removed by wastewater treatment plants, like PFAS, arsenic and mercury.
“There are hundreds of thousands of chemicals that have come into industrial use since the Clean Water Act was passed. Almost none of them have been tested for toxicity or environmental circulation,” Martini says. “Those will be the problems of the future.”
The Clean Water Act now faces a legal challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court. If successful, it would narrow the reach of the law by excluding wetlands and smaller bodies of water.
Still, Martini is optimistic that the success of the Clean Water Act offers hope for the future.
“This kind of history gives you hope for things like climate change,” he says. “That’s exactly what climate change is, a very complex, worldwide problem that has all kinds of myths associated with it. If you use science to dispel some of those myths and then use science to come up with a solution, you can do the same thing we did on the Wisconsin River.”
The Wisconsin River seems to gush a little louder over its bed of rocks as the light drizzle picks up strength.
Martini climbs out of the rain and into his car. He drives away from the Hat Rapids dam, leaving the river behind him.
A minute later, the blue heron he pointed out earlier leaps into the air more gracefully than would seem possible given its stick-thin, lanky legs.
It glides over a layer of mist rising from the river, then disappears behind a bend.