Fishable, Swimmable: What a Concept!

Wastewater treatment has transformed the nation’s lakes and streams. Tell us about the special habitat your clean-water plant is protecting.

As a boy in a small Wisconsin town on Lake Michigan, I nearly lived on the river. (The section of stream in my neighborhood was actually an estuary, and I grew up thinking it was normal for a river current to reverse direction rhythmically.)

Anyway, my neighborhood chums and I spent our summers fishing for bullheads and carp, angling for crayfish with liver tied to pieces of string, floating on makeshift rafts, and building huts out of sticks and marsh grass.

But never swimming. Our parents wouldn’t allow it. The water was too polluted, they said. This was back in the 1960s, when people seemed to accept polluted water as a fact of life, as part of the price of “progress.” Then along came the Clean Water Act and the idea that the nation’s waters should, by all rights, be fishable and swimmable — that in the long run anything less was not to be tolerated.

I was a senior in high school at the time of the first Earth Day, when the phrase “fishable and swimmable” joined the lexicon. It seemed like nothing more than common sense, and sure enough, just like that, the nation’s perception changed. No longer would it be acceptable to treat rivers like open sewers for the sake of “economic prosperity.”

Waters transformed

Change happened, if not overnight, then with remarkable speed. The most obvious success, of course, was Lake Erie. I learned in grade school that Erie was a “dead lake.” Not so many years after the Clean Water Act took effect, it became the walleye capital of the world. I even have a hat that says so — a souvenir from a charter-fishing trip I took with friends a few years ago.

As for my own little river, well, that has changed, too. It’s still full of carp and bullheads, of course, being a small, slow stream that winds through marshland and farm country. But now it’s also home, in season, to smallmouth bass.

I moved back to my home area after 28 years of living the suburban life near Milwaukee, and every year since I’ve fished the river for smallmouths. Right around Memorial Day, when the water has warmed up, I find them at a couple of riffles upstream from a bridge a mile or so north of town.

I wade against the gentle current, casting for them with a jointed floating minnow plug. I won’t claim that I catch them by the bushel, but I always get a few (and I always release them). It’s a late-spring ritual I greatly enjoy. There are better places to catch smallmouths, but I visit the river in part to celebrate its regeneration.

I’m sure the bass are there in part because the community of 700 people five miles upstream now has better wastewater treatment than it did when I was a kid. I suspect the water is also fine for swimming now (although pollution from farm runoff remains an issue).

Let’s celebrate

My little river is just one of many that wastewater treatment has reclaimed. I can only imagine the stories treatment operators could tell about the great lake and river habitats downstream from their plants.

And here is your chance to tell those stories. In a future issue of TPO, we’d like to report on the fish and wildlife habitats, the fishing hotspots, the public recreation areas, and the scenic places that are better because a wastewater treatment plant, day after day, works the miracle of turning a community’s sewage into clean water.

To make your contribution, just drop me a note describing your downstream environment and how your treatment plant protects it. I don’t need anything fancy — if we need more information, someone will follow up with you. Please also send a picture or two of your special place.

Send your material to editor@tpomag.com. Remember, this doesn’t have to be a success story on the scale of Lake Erie. We’re interested in any story about a precious stretch of water you’re protecting. Even if it’s a little no-account river like mine.



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