Fifty Years of the Clean Water Act Successes in the Wisconsin River Basin

WI Green Fire, October 11, 2022

View of the Wisconsin River today. Credit: Fred Clark
View of the Wisconsin River today. Credit: Fred Clark

Bob Martini served for 32 years with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as statewide River Protection Coordinator leading efforts to clean up the Wisconsin River Basin. He is a member of the board of directors of Wisconsin’s Green Fire. In this commentary piece, Bob outlines examples of CWA’s successes in cleaning up the Wisconsin River Basin in central and northern Wisconsin, emphasizing the power of science to protect public health and the environment despite common myths blocking these efforts.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was enacted into law in the early morning hours of October 18, 1972, when bipartisan majorities of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives overrode the veto of then-President Richard Nixon.

Fifty years later, this landmark legislation has reversed decades of degradation of waterways, and it is widely acclaimed as one of the most successful environmental laws in our nation’s history. As a first step, the law required each state to identify sources of all major water quality problems within its watersheds.

Examples of the law’s successes are evident throughout the Wisconsin River Basin in central and northern Wisconsin. Each accomplishment demonstrates the triumph of science over myths created to block efforts aimed at protecting public health and the environment.

Wisconsin River Cleanup

More than 70 municipalities, 15 pulp and paper mills, as well as numerous farms faced few restrictions in discharging wastes to the river and its tributaries prior to the 1970s. As a result, water in three separate 40-mile segments of the river between Rhinelander and the Petenwell flowage did not hold enough oxygen to sustain most fish or other aquatic life.

Sludge from the mills covered several flowages along the river, enabling small animals to walk on the surface. Foam swelled atop the water, forming dense clouds tall enough to fully envelop canoes.

Bacteria in the river consumed oxygen as they fed on the wastes. Their appetites depleted dissolved oxygen in the water that most fish needed to survive. The few fish tolerant of low oxygen, such as bullhead and carp, had multiple tumors on their bodies and smelled like the mills.

Wisconsin scientists and regulators worked with the mills and the municipalities to establish discharge permit limits that significantly reduced the load of wastes poured into waterways. The mills paid out around $325 million in treatment costs.

No mills went out of business or moved to southern states in response to the Clean Water Act permits, as the “myth of the incompatibility of a strong economy and a healthy environment” had forecast.

Paper industry technical directors said the industry benefitted from meeting permit discharge requirements because they modernized processes and became more competitive with newer mills in the South.

No Dams Removed

There were 26 federally licensed hydroelectric dams and their impoundments, as well as a system of 21 separate water storage reservoirs, along the upper Wisconsin River in the 1970s. The system of reservoirs store water that can be released when needed to provide uniform flow for all public purposes, but each dam and impoundment lessen water quality.

The Clean Water Act requires the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to obtain state water quality certification for the dams before the agency can renew 50-year operating licenses.

The myth circulated in response to certification held that dam owners’ costs would be so high that some dams would be abandoned and removed.

Relicensing under the CWA resulted in several changes to the licenses: higher minimum flows downstream of dams to improve fish and wildlife habitat and protect freshwater mussels and other rare species; create safety and water quality improvements; and protect boat landings and fishing piers.

Not one dam was abandoned, and renewable energy continues to be generated.

Acid Rain Controlled

Studies found more than 2,000 lakes, largely in northern Wisconsin, were susceptible to the effects of precipitation that was between 10 and 100 times more acidic than normal by the 1970s.

Power plants, motor vehicles, industrial boilers, and chemical factories burning fossil fuels emit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Most sulfur dioxide emissions come from coal-fired power plants.

Once in the air, the two compounds react with oxygen and moisture to form sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and nitrous acid. Precipitation washes the pollutants out of the air as it falls to the surface. Lakes became more acidic than normal over time. That resulted in high mortality of many fish species and an inability to reproduce. Populations collapsed.

A persistent myth held that the cost of fixes at power plants to reduce air pollution would result in extreme rate hikes, driving businesses out of the state and making power unaffordable for lower-income households.

In 1986, Wisconsin lawmakers responded to scientific studies that found switching to low sulfur coal rather than installing costly smokestack “scrubbers” would avoid huge expenditures. They passed a law that required the switch.

Within a few years, Wisconsin utilities locked in 30-year contracts for that coal and provided customers with some of the lowest electricity rates in the nation for many years.

Science Tops Myth

Water quality improvements along the Fox River in northeastern Wisconsin, another papermaking river, and many more environmental success stories statewide, were made possible by the Clean Water Act.

Together with accomplishments in the Wisconsin River Basin, this history of cleaning the waterways demonstrate that science, not unfounded myths, can best improve water resources, protect public health, sustain life on the planet, and support a strong economy.

For all those reasons, safeguarding our water resources remains as important today as it was in 1972.

You can read more of Bob’s reflections on the CWA here:

Read more about Bob’s experiences cleaning up the WI River in WXPR’s October 26th article:

Contact: Bob Martini,


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