The Cost of Clean Water

WI Green Fire, August 24, 2022

Photo: Bruce Neeb
Photo: Bruce Neeb

The following is a reflection written by Bruce Neeb, a Wisconsin’s Green Fire member and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources retiree who served 27 years with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Information/Education (I&E) and Grants and Loans programs. During his time at WDNR in Eau Claire, Bruce oversaw WDNR West Central Region grant, loan, and public outreach efforts and coordinated review of waterway access abandonment requests.

In this reflection on 50 years of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, Bruce describes how he witnessed the Clean Water Act play a role in protecting and conserving water quality in Wisconsin. 

They’re not projects most people get excited about.  But without upgrades to municipal wastewater treatment plants and Community Drinking Water systems, we’d be in trouble.  In the 1800’s, illness from contaminated drinking water was a leading cause of death in Western Wisconsin and around the country.

In my years supervising DNR Environmental Loans engineers in western Wisconsin we provided communities with millions of dollars in low cost loans for their water systems. The money comes from Wisconsin’s Environmental Improvement Fund, a direct product of the federal Clean Water Act, passed 50 years ago. I had a chance to visit water treatment plants and celebrate projects in Eau Claire, Bloomer, Arcadia, and several other communities. In recent years, the fund has provided loans including $11 million each for Eau Claire and Menomonie, $12 million for Hudson, $3.5 million for Bloomer, $6 million for Augusta, $74 million for La Crosse, and $80 million for Wausau.  On top of that, add $75 million for lead line replacements around the state.

Passed in an era when rivers burned and frothed with industrial and municipal waste discharges, the goal of the Clean Water Act was to make all our lakes, rivers, and streams fishable and swimmable.  The impact it’s had on public health and the quality of our lives is clearly cause for celebration. We celebrate all those who recognize the importance of clean water and dedicate their professional careers and tax dollars to protect it.

There’s still plenty to do as we work with agricultural producers to reduce nitrates in our drinking water and reduce run-off from fields to combat Blue-green algae. We need national standards to deal with emerging contaminants such as PFAS.  When it comes to clean water, it’s best to act before we pay the cost in terms of human lives.