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Celebrate Wisconsin's Clean Water Act Progress and Heroes

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp shares about the 40-year progress in cleaning up Wisconsin's waterways.

When you pull a walleye from the Wisconsin River, cruise along the Fox River or dine overlooking the Milwaukee River, it’s hard to believe that 40 years ago waters had sludge so thick birds could walk across; that Green Bay dumped perfume into the East River to mask the stench, and that a sulfite liquor spill in the Oconto River discolored the paint on houses.

What a difference the Clean Water Act has made in Wisconsin! We have a lot celebrate as a result of what Ken Johnson, our water leader and 36-year DNR veteran, calls “the most profoundly successful environmental law ever conceived.”

The Clean Water Act required municipal and industrial wastewater dischargers across the country to get permits with stricter limits on the pollution they sent into lakes and rivers. It leveled the playing field among states. It provided municipalities and states with federal funding to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and hire needed staff, and its "citizen suit" provision allowed environmental watchdogs and other groups to sue polluters and the agencies regulating them. The law required permits for dredging or filling harmful to wetlands.

Wisconsin moved quickly and aggressively. DNR staffed up to meet the challenge, as did municipalities and industry. Citizen groups kept the pressure on. All of these folks made the Clean Water Act work for Wisconsin. That included pioneering a wasteload allocation approach that cleaned up our waters without halting the growth of cities or businesses.

As former Natural Resources board member John Brogan put it: “We proved that you could have fish and factories instead of fish or factories.”

By 1983, Wisconsin became the first state to issue permits holding dischargers to the higher “secondary” standard of treatment as we succeeded in removing much of the visible pollution. Levels of toxic and bacterial pollutants we couldn’t see went down, the dissolved oxygen that fish need went up, and our waters started healing.

Numbers tell part of the story: mercury levels on the Mississippi River near Red Wing, Minn., decreased three-fold; Fox River paper mills cut pollution discharges from 425,000 to 22,000 pounds of solids a day; Milwaukee went from having as many as 60 combined sewer overflows a year to 2.5; and wetland loss slowed significantly from the 5 million acres drained or filled by the 1980s to about 1,400 acres a year in 1991, and to several hundred acres today. Even more powerful to me are these measures of success: the smiling faces of people who flock to our lakes, rivers and wetlands; the fact that our cities and businesses are turning toward Wisconsin waterfronts, not away from them; and the clean water that flows out of the tap for residents who rely on the Great Lakes and Lake Winnebago for their drinking water.

Forty years in, the Clean Water Act is still protecting and restoring our waters, but there is more work to be done. Runoff pollution, invasive species and algae blooms are among some of the biggest challenges we face.

We are moving ahead to develop approaches that work for Wisconsin. In 2010, we became the first state to adopt phosphorus standards for rivers, lakes and streams. We are working with municipalities and industries as their discharge permits are re-issued to find flexible, cost-effective solutions to meet new permit limits. We are working with farmers to reduce nutrients from farm fields. These approaches will incorporate sophisticated modeling and monitoring, and will tap into the ideas and experience of the farmers, industry and municipal wastewater treatment plant operators on what works best.

For now, however, it’s a time for us to celebrate and give thanks. I invite you to visit a special Clean Water Act feature on our website – dnr.wi.gov – to learn more and share your stories about Wisconsin’s clean water heroes.

And the next time we sit on a pier watching a beautiful sunset, swim at our favorite beach or land a fish – big or small – we can remember that a lot of people worked very hard and creatively to make those experiences possible.

Thanks for the memories!

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