Reflections on 50 Years of the Clean Water Act

WI Green Fire, September 26, 2022

Photo credit: Bruce Neeb
Photo credit: Bruce Neeb

Fifty years ago, the Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) was passed – a landmark decision to protect the safety, quality, and integrity of water in the United States. The Clean Water Act defined the lives and careers of many WGF members and Wisconsin residents, many of whom played vital roles in implementing the CWA standards and cleaning up Wisconsin waterways. We asked a few of our members to share their perspectives on the CWA, and how it changed the course of their careers in water resources.  

Bob Martini: 

Bob Martini is a member of the Water Resources and Environmental Rules Work Group. Bob served for 32 years with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) as Statewide River Protection Coordinator leading efforts to clean up the Wisconsin River and prevent acid rain damage in northern Wisconsin. 

How has the Clean Water Act influenced your career in water resources? 

CWA work was my whole 32-year career with WDNR. I supervised work on the cleanup of the Wisconsin River, acid rain, pesticides and nitrates in Central Sands groundwater, and the effects of dams on river health. I learned that science-based natural resources management is the best way to protect and improve the water resource, protect the public’s rights in water, and enhance the local economy all at the same time.   

The CWA was the template for water quality success in Wisconsin. The projects I worked on demonstrated that data, logic, public involvement, and sound business decision-making are better than the political system at making natural resources decisions that benefit society. I learned that effective environmental protection is a “team sport” as I worked with dozens of science professionals and elected officials, experts from various scientific disciplines, regulated entities, and the public to ensure the best outcomes.  

How have you seen the Clean Water Act change how water is viewed, valued, and treated in Wisconsin? In the United States? 

Over the years the CWA has been attacked and weakened by legislative action, but public support for clean water has never been higher. One of the most important features of the CWA is the “anti-backsliding clause” stating that when water quality is improved, we need to guard against backsliding to the days of burning rivers and extreme pollution that led to the initial passage of the CWA in 1972. Clean water is more important and scarcer than ever before, worldwide, and is arguably Wisconsin’s most valuable natural resource.  

Do you have any stories or personal experiences where you saw the positive impact of the Clean Water Act?     

At our first meeting to begin the Wisconsin River clean up, George Mead (owner of the largest paper mill complex on the river) drank a beaker of the effluent from his wastewater treatment plant, saying “If it’s good enough for me it’s good enough for the river.” Years later, he instructed his engineers to build a treatment plant that discharged half of the WDNR limit needed to clean up the river.  


Michael Cain 

Michael Cain is co-chair of the Public Trust and Wetlands Work Group. Michael was the lead attorney for the WDNR wetland and surface water regulatory program for 34 years, retiring in 2009. He was involved in drafting and developing laws and regulations protecting Wisconsin’s waters under the Public Trust Doctrine. 

How has the Clean Water Act influenced your career in water resources? 

As a student pursuing a degree in Biology in 1970 at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, I was fully aware of the serious pollution of Wisconsin’s water resources. I participated in the first Earth Day marches in 1970 and was determined to go to law school and pursue a career to help restore Wisconsin’s natural resources. The Clean Water Act provided the basis for beginning to clean up the toxic messes that had evolved with “modern” industrialization. 

How have you seen the Clean Water Act change how water is viewed, valued, and treated in Wisconsin? In the United States? 

The Milwaukee River is an excellent example of the problems that existed due to historical neglect and disregard for Wisconsin’s water resources. As historian John Gurda wrote in Milwaukee, A City Built on Water, “Sewage overflows, urban runoff, industrial discharges and new pollutants combined to recreate the “river nuisance” in a new century… A visiting architecture professor called the stream an “open sewer” in 1961.”   

Kayak tour on the Milwaukee River. Photo credit: Milwaukee Riverkeeper

The river cleanup began after the CWA was implemented, and by the 1980s, the river was clean enough that the City of Milwaukee worked with WDNR to create a publicly accessible Riverwalk. Today, the Milwaukee River and Riverwalk are vibrant amenities, with restaurants, boat docks condominiums, and public art spaces gracing the riverbanks.  

The City of Milwaukee recently reported that “as of July 2022, properties adjacent to the River Walk have generated $1.5 billion in increased property values…. including 2800 residential units. 4.7 million square feet of office space, 515 hotel rooms and dozens of riverfront businesses and restaurants.” (City of Milwaukee Updated Urban Land Institute Award Application – July 2022). The Milwaukee Riverwalk was also recently recognized as one of the 10 Best Riverwalks in the United States. 

As we continue to work for clean water, the successes of the Clean Water Act and its companion legislation from the 1970s demonstrate that progress can be made if citizens continue to press for improvements to these natural resources. 

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