Forty years of the Clean Water Act mean much better water

1963 oil on minnesota river


Images from the past

A collection of photos showing how far we've come — and how the CWA is still making a difference.

Much better after 40 years of the Clean Water Act

Two massive oil spills into Minnesota rivers devastated fish and wildlife in the early 1960s. At the time, no laws required that spills be reported or cleaned up.

By the early 1970s, such catastrophes were becoming common. In Ohio, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it caught fire—for the tenth time. Time Magazine reported that Lake Erie was dying from all the waste dumped into it. St. Louis took its drinking water from the muddy Missouri River because the Mississippi was far worse.

With the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an environmental movement swept across the nation to the halls of Congress, which passed the federal Clean Water Act on October 18, 1972. The act’s goal was simple—all waters should be fishable and swimmable where possible.

“The Clean Water Act was has forever changed how we monitor and protect our water,” says Commissioner John Linc Stine of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). “The Clean Water Act has raised the bar of our expectations. Those expectations are high in Minnesota because 99% of the water found here, started here. This means our water protection efforts have an exponentially positive impact on the many states to our south, east and west, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.”

When the Clean Water Act went into effect, Minnesota had already started its water cleanup efforts, having established the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 1967. This agency faced a daunting task in the 1970s with 450 communities failing to adequately treat their sewage or industrial waste. More than 40% of industries in the state were simply dumping their wastes into rivers and lakes.

Dramatic improvement

In the past 40 years, Minnesota and other states have made great strides in treating sewage, industrial waste, and other pollutants that damage water resources. The Clean Water Act is the backbone of that work.

The act embodied a new federal-state partnership. The federal government, through the Environmental Protection Agency, established guidelines, objectives, and limits. The federal government provided technical and financial assistance, most notably matching grants to local governments to build systems to treat wastewater and stormwater. The states carry out the law with their own monitoring, assistance, and enforcement programs.

The act states that all discharges into the nation’s waters are unlawful unless authorized by a permit and sets controls for municipalities and industries. This is why wastewater treatment plants in Minnesota are required to have a permit from the MPCA. The act requires all dischargers to meet additional, stricter pollutant controls where needed to meet water quality targets, and requires federal approval of these standards.

It also protects wetlands by requiring “dredge and fill” permits. The act has robust enforcement provisions and gives citizens a strong role to play in watershed protection.

Congress has occasionally revised the act to address toxic pollutants, stormwater runoff, and groundwater protection. Notwithstanding these improvements, the 1972 law, along with its regulatory provisions and the institutions that were created 40 years ago, is still the framework for protecting and restoring the nation’s rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, and coastal waters.

The difference the Clean Water Act made to the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities is profound. Once a dead river from raw sewage, industrial discharges, and slaughterhouse waste, this part of the Mississippi now boasts game fishing and a designation as a national recreation area. That progress stems from the Twin Cities’ investment in wastewater and stormwater treatment, including grants from the Clean Water Act.

New challenges

The Clean Water Act remains a vital part of protecting Minnesota’s rivers and lakes, which are essential to the state’s economy and quality of life. In spite of 40 years of progress, new challenges to clean water protection arise frequently. Today the challenges include sedimentation of streams and rivers, invasive species, and pollutants from farm and residential runoff. A decade from now new challenges will be uncovered.

Before being elected to Congress, former U.S. Rep Jim Oberstar was the lead staff on the committee that wrote the Clean Water Act. Congress was driven to action by the pollution problems threatening unique, finite water resources. “NASA has spent billions over the years sending men to the moon and on dozens of other space missions, and very often the thing they most wanted to discover on these missions was fresh water. That should tell us what we need to know about protecting the fresh water we have here on earth,” he said in a recent interview.

Throughout the next month, the MPCA will highlight the rippling effect of the Clean Water Act, taking a closer look at the changes in the Mississippi in the Twin Cities, the work of local communities to overcome water pollution, improvements on feedlots in Minnesota, and the historical role of Congressman Oberstar.