The Clean Water Act turns 40

Clean Water ActWhen you turn on the tap for a glass of water does it come out full of suds or clear?  Have you seen the Cannon River or the Mississippi River burst into flames lately?  Without actually checking everyone’s taps I’d wager that the water you are drinking is free of suds and to the best of my knowledge our rivers haven’t been ablaze.  Why am I even asking these weird questions? 

Forty years ago these things did happen.  The levels of water pollution had gotten so bad in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that something had to be done.  The Clean Water Act was a landmark piece of legislation that was passed by Congress, vetoed by President Nixon and then overridden by a landslide in Congress on October 18, 1972 and is now marking its 40th Anniversary. 

This rule set out standards for the waters of our nation with objectives and goals for the conditions they should be in.  It provides the guidelines for states with regard to regulating sewage and industrial waste and other pollutants that affect our waters.  Wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act through “dredge and fill” permits.  The Act has been revised a few times adding provisions for stormwater runoff, groundwater protection and dealing with toxic pollutants. 

In a 1958 memo, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources stated that the Cannon River near Faribault was uninhabitable for fish due to all the industrial pollution.  That same river now boasts some 42 species of fish.  We’ve come a long way!  We are treating our sewage, industrial discharges and doing a better job with urban stormwater runoff.  But we still have a ways to go. 

Our stormwater management is good but it could be better.  There is still pollution coming from our farm fields and other land areas – referred to as nonpoint source pollution.  The Clean Water Act has very little teeth when it comes to this type of pollution. 

But with or without regulation, we have the ability, technology, and know how to make some substantial improvements.  It’s going to take hard work, compromise and financial resources but I know we can do it.  I hope when I’m an octogenarian and we are celebrating the 80th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act we’ll be able to say that our waters now truly meet the Clean Water Act’s goal of fishable and swimmable water. 

Want to help? Contact me at the Cannon River Watershed Partnership and we’ll find a way for you to pitch in.

Check out some interesting history and this short video by former Congressman Jim Oberstar on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency website.

1 comment to The Clean Water Act turns 40

  • 1

    Thank you so much for continuing this good work. I worked with Great Lakes organizations for ten years and we made quite a bit of headway, but there was and is yet so much more to be done. There is nothing better than to be able to swim in waters you know are clean. Or to watch a deer drink from a stream that is cool, clear and of course, clean.
    I focused in on teaching others to love the natural waters, to know how difficult it was to clean them up once they got polluted. At a grammar school lecture, I let the kids fill a clear glass jar with ketchup, coffee grounds and olive oil and then ask for a volunteer to clean it up. They quickly got the message, even the 2nd graders. And I would tell the reporters that even a dog knows not to urinate where it eats. So, thank you for your work and good luck!

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