Shakopee, Minn. — Gary Botzek remembers when the Mississippi was a dead river.
“This was prior to 1972, and the Mississippi was basically dead in the Twin Cities from raw sewage, industrial discharges, and slaughterhouse waste,” said Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation. “We were using this great, iconic river as a dump.”
Minnesota, however, wasn’t behind the curve, conservation officials and clean water advocates say. By the early 1970s, the nation’s waterways – large and small – were becoming dirtier and dirtier from “point-source” pollution. Fish kills were commonplace. Public health concerns over drinking water were on the rise. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it started on fire – as many as 10 times. Lake Erie was dying, and St. Louis took its drinking water from the turbid and muddy Missouri River because the Mississippi was considered toxic. An estimated 60 to 70 percent of America’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters were considered unsafe for swimming and fishing in 1972.
“What happened with the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 was profound for waters in Minnesota and across the nation,” Botzek said. “Since its passage, our lakes, rivers and streams have made great strides, and we need to ensure that we don’t go backwards in how we protect our waterways.”
As supporters of the Clean Water Act celebrate its 40th anniversary, conservation groups are calling on hunters and anglers to be active voices in the continued preservation of the nation’s lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands.
They say such protections are inextricably linked to quality fishing and hunting everywhere. “Hunting and fishing in Minnesota are dependent on clean water,” Botzek said. “It’s an economic issue as much as an environmental issue. Hunting and fishing in Minnesota contribute roughly $4 billion annually to the state’s economy.”
The Clean Water Act, which passed Congress overwhelmingly with bipartisan support on Oct. 18, 1972, sets regulatory standards and goals for the nation’s waters to be clean enough for drinking, swimming and fishing.
Considered by many to be the nation’s keystone environmental protection legislation, the act does have its fair share of critics who argue today the legislation kills jobs because of burdensome regulations.
Consider: The U.S. House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, has recently approved legislation that would turn over CWA enforcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the states. The net effect, supporters of that legislation say, would spur economic growth by easing permitting delays.
And while the House bill has stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate, conservation officials believe attempts to remake the CWA by some in Congress will likely continue. “We’ve already had erosions to some of the protections in the Clean Water Act after two Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 that muddied the waters, so to speak,” Botzek said. “What we’re saying is that clean water is good for everyone. It’s not a partisan issue.”
Conservation groups across the board say the two Supreme Court decisions and an uncertain and often confusing guidance given to the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA have put at risk roughly 20 million acres of wetlands and roughly 2 million miles of streams throughout the continental U.S.
A report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows the erosion of clean water protections has taken a toll on wetlands. According to the USFWS, between 2004 and 2009, wet acres decreased by 62,300 nationwide, a 140-percent increase in the wetland loss rate compared to the last documented timeframe, from 1998 to 2004.
Many of those wetland acres are among the most important for migratory waterfowl, conservation officials say. They also help filter pollutants and provide storage for flood waters, among other functions. “Once wetlands are lost, they’re almost impossible to get back,” Botzek said.
When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, Minnesota had already begun water clean-up efforts across the state. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was established in 1967, and the agency faced a difficult task.
For example, in the 1970s roughly 450 communities were failing to adequately treat their raw sewage and industrial waste, according to the agency. In addition, more than 40 percent of industries were dumping their waste into rivers and lakes, putting at risk fisheries, water-dependent wildlife and drinking water. In four decades, the CWA has helped clean up Minnesota waters and primed the pump for a robust outdoor recreational economy.
“We’ve come a long way in 40 years, in Minnesota and other states, and I don’t believe anyone wants to roll back the clock on clean water,” Botzek said. “It’s not in anyone’s interests to have dirty water. We’ve come too far to go back. It’s a quality-of-life issue as much as anything.”
Botzek and other conservation officials say there’s also a new slate of issues impacting healthy waters, in Minnesota and elsewhere. Today’s challenges, they say, include sedimentation of rivers, streams and lakes, invasive species and pollutants from agriculture and residential runoff. All can have a dramatic impact on water resources and the fortunes of Minnesota hunters and anglers.
“I’ve always looked at the Clean Water Act and the Farm Bill as the twin towers of conservation,” Botzek said. “But now we’re losing CRP acres and wetlands and the future is very much uncertain. What hunters and anglers have to remember is that it’s good policy to protect our land and waters. They’re finite resources and very few are renewable.”