A Half-Century of Miracles

The Clean Water Act’s 50th anniversary is a time to celebrate a monumental regulatory success and huge progress toward fishable and swimmable waters

A Half-Century of Miracles

Among environmental milestones, you likely remember Earth Day, first observed on April 22 when I was a senior in high school. It was the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from my state of Wisconsin.

But a much more consequential day is less well known. That’s Oct. 18, 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act into law. Its goal was to make America’s waters fishable and swimmable, and 50 years ago only one third of the nations’ waterways met that definition. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, created two years earlier, took responsibility for the act’s enforcement.

A symbol of the need for something like the Clean Water Act was the Cuyahoga River, so polluted with chemicals that it caught on fire multiple times. My memories are more modest — of the East Twin River near my home in the Lake Michigan city of Two Rivers. My parents wouldn’t let my brothers and me swim there because it was too polluted.

Thanks to the Clean Water Act, the Cuyahoga River was restored, Lake Erie was brought back from the dead, and my little hometown river is a place where today anglers (and I include myself) can catch smallmouth bass.

Celebrating success

The Clean Water Act has been a monumental success, and the Association of Clean Water Administrators is now celebrating it by profiling several outstanding cleanup projects, some having a great deal to do with improved wastewater treatment. 

The ACWA is an independent, nonpartisan national organization of state, interstate and territorial water program managers who implement the water-quality programs of the Clean Water Act. Its members facilitate technical and policy innovation and best practices among national and state water programs, foster collaboration with our federal partners, and foster dialogue between our member agencies, Congress, and the administration.

Here’s a look at some of the 10 projects the ACWA is highlighting, with emphasis on those where clean-water plants and operation teams and improvements in wastewater collection played prominent roles. You can see the complete case studies here.

Lower Providence River, Rhode Island

Decades of wastewater treatment and stormwater control improvements under the Clean Water Act, and investment of more than $500 million, improved water quality and enabled reopening of shellfish harvest areas in the Providence River and upper Narragansett Bay. 

“The Providence River connects the freshwater of the Blackstone, Mohassuck, and Woonasquatucket Rivers with the estuarine waters of Narragansett Bay,” says the ACWA summary. “Through the decades of wastewater treatment improvements, fecal coliform monitoring demonstrated dramatic reductions in the level of bacterial pollution in the waters of Upper Narragansett Bay.”

Thanks to improvements in wastewater treatment and the collection and treatment of combined sewage, shellfish waters in Upper Narragansett Bay ere now open for harvest 80% of the time in 2021, versus 49% of the time in 2000, benefiting to both commercial and recreational shellfish harvesters as well as boaters, beach-goers and others.  

Portland, Oregon

Portland’s investments to control combined sewer overflows greatly improved water quality and helped transform residents’ relationship with the river that runs through the city. “Once a river to avoid, now it is a valued public space for people and wildlife,” says the ACWA summary.

In the city’s wet winters, CSOs occurred 40 to 50 times a year, significantly harming the Willamette River and Columbia Slough. In the early 1990s, a lawsuit was filed against the city for Clean Water Act violations. “In response to the lawsuit and regulatory discussions, Portland entered into an agreement with state Department of Environmental Quality that created a 20-year plan for managing CSOs, including achieving 99.6% control of combined flows in the Columbia Slough area and 94% control for the Willamette River.” 

Now CSOs are so uncommon that it is news when one occurs. The system has greatly improved water quality in the river and slough. Events like the Willamette River Big Float now encourage residents to get into the river.

Chesapeake Bay, Maryland

“When the Maryland Department of the Environment was established in 1987, the Chesapeake Bay was ailing,” says the ACWA summary. “Cleanup attempts faltered. Pollution persisted. Aquatic life suffered. Unchecked nutrient pollution caused ‘dead zones’ depleted of the oxygen crabs and fish need to survive.”

Over the last 30 years the department has worked to restore the bay with help from sister agencies and numerous local partners. In 2004 the Bay Restoration Fund was created; it uses money collected from sewer user and septic system owners to reduce pollution. 

“That fund pays for enhanced nutrient removal upgrades to large wastewater treatment plants — arguably the single biggest factor in improving the bay’s health. The Bay Restoration Fund has provided nearly $1.3 billion in grants. Counting grants and loans from the Water Quality State Revolving Fund … $4 billion has been invested in clean water by this agency.”

Lower San Antonio River, Texas

To address high bacteria levels in the River, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality implemented 25 water quality management plans and multiple best management practices in the river’s sub-watersheds. As a result, several river sections were taken off the impaired waters list.

Indian Creek, Virginia

To address two segment of the creek listed as impaired, the state Department of Environmental Quality worked with federal, state and local on controls including stream exclusion fencing, woodland buffer and filter areas, and riparian forest buffer. Water quality improved and the both stream segments were taken off the impaired waters list.

Shell Creek, Nebraska

To rehabilitate this 110-mile stream flowing into the Platte River cropland treatments and near- and in-stream treatments abated pollution of the stream and its tributaries E. coli and Atrazine herbicide. The projects also reduced inflow of nutrients and sediment.

Ogden River, Utah

The Ogden River is an oasis for its community in Northern Utah. For decades the Ogden and Weber rivers were treated as waste areas. An Ogden River cleanup conducted as part of a redevelopment program removed some 6,000 tons of recyclable debris, 9,000 tons of garbage, seven car bodies, and 2,500 tires.

He‘eia Stream, Hawaii

He‘eia Stream on the windward side of the island of Oahu was impaired due to erosion, stormwater runoff and invasive species. Volunteers restored over 4,000 feet of streambank by replacing non-native invasive plants with native plants, sedges and trees. They installed more than 1,000 feet of coir logs along the stream banks reduce erosion.  

Antelope Creek, Nebraska

This 8-mile creek running through the city of Lincoln was listed as impaired for recreation because of E. coli. Numerous small projects and best management practices including placement of pet waste receptacles along the creek helped correct the problem as did more than 120 rain gardens on private property and use of permeable pavers. The creek’s listing as impaired was removed. 

Kemp Brook, New Hampshire

A dam along a tributary to Kemp Brook that once powered a sawmill created an impoundment where sediment built up, promoting summer super-heating that severely reduced dissolved oxygen. Stakeholders worked together to remove the dam and le the stream flow freely. Oxygen levels immediately improved.

What’s Your Clean Water Story?

You might well have memories of a lake or stream that you have seen greatly improved thanks to the Clean Water Act.

Treatment Plant Operator invites you to share your favorite story of a water resource reborn. Just send us a write-up in perhaps 200 to 300 words. We’ll publish submissions here at TPO Online and in a future TPO print edition.

Email your submissions to TPO editor Ted Rulseh at editor@tpomag.com.


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