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A Special WUWM News SeriesThe Milwaukee River allowed commerce and industry to thrive during the city's formative years and provided recreation. However, disregard for the river's health led to decades of decay.WUWM News explores recent developments to rejuvenate the Milwaukee River and their success at drawing people back to the city's historic arterial.

Impacts of Clean Water Act Visible in Wisconsin

S Bence
The Wisconsin River is an example of waterways improved under the Clean Water Act.

Before the Clean Water Act, what came out of wastewater pipes was essentially unregulated.

When Dave Fowler moved here decades ago to work for Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, the Milwaukee River was not a destination.

“Back in 1980, when I was on that river on a barge, I wouldn’t have wanted to eat my lunch out there. Now I’m seeing hundreds and hundreds of kayakers and boaters enjoying the downtown of Milwaukee because the river and the harbor is now considered a recreational opportunity, not an open cesspool,” Fowler says.

Back then, the sewer system often dumped untreated sewage into local rivers and Lake Michigan when the treatment plants couldn’t handle it all.

Today, there are occasional overflows, when ferocious storms send untreated sewage rocketing into the lake. But Fowler says mostly, the Clean Water Act has worked.

"This is a drop shaft to the deep tunnel. We’re in the southern most wing, or leg, of the tunnel. There are three phases to the tunnel,” Fowler says.

He is pointing to the deep tunnel system the district constructed.

It can hold 520 million gallons of sewer water, until the treatment plant can cleanse it.

Fowler says the Clean Water Act not only regulates wastewater coming out pipes but it gives citizens the power to sue violators. “So that allowed for a lot of communities and citizen activists to get after sewage treatment plants, industries. Most of those were consent decrees that come out of those lawsuits – given an opportunity to clean up their problems, like the deep tunnel did for us, the overflows were one of the things we got sued over,” he says.

Credit S Bence
MMSD senior project manager Dave Fowler along Kinnickinnic River where deep tunnel infrastructure can be seen.

Illinois came after MMSD for contaminating Lake Michigan beaches bordering that state.

While the deep tunnel didn’t start coming on line until two decades after the Clean Water Act took effect, Fowler says it turned on a spigot of money that helped pay for the $3 billion project.

“Fifty-five percent, roughly, came from this grant funding from the federal government and we even got some money from the state,” Fowler says.

In other parts of Wisconsin, similar stories unfolded. Lyman Wible, a former DNR administrator, says the Clean Water Act helped revive waterways that for decades had held toxic waste spilling out of paper mills.

“There were pieces on the Fox River you couldn’t have given away 40 years ago that today are very high value real estate. Take a drive up there and look at the mansions that are looking out at the river. It’s just been a tremendous change to the face of Wisconsin,” Wible says.

Yet, he says, the process has not always been easy or without confrontation. One heated moment remains etched in his memory.

“When a big paper company comes to the Natural Resources Board and sends their president and he stands on a chair and says ‘this means war’; he shouted it during the board meeting. I was there for that, I know that happened,” Wible says.

Wible says the Clean Water Act forced paper mills to absorb huge financial blows in order to clean their wastewater before releasing it, yet, he claims the changes have improved more than water quality.

“The requirement to reduce your pollution induced new methods of production. It made the Wisconsin mills more competitive than they’d been before,” he says.

Another person who observed the transformation close-up is former Governor Tony Earl. He was a state assemblyman when Congress passed the Clean Water Act. Earl then served as Wisconsin DNR secretary and finally headed to the governor’s office in 1982.

A year later, he helped created The Council of Great Lakes Governors. “We understood that the health of our economies and the health of our citizens depended on a clean and vibrant Great Lakes system and that trying to get away with whatever you could, was a bad strategy,” Earl says.

Earl says the Clean Water Act helped plant the seed of collaboration among Great Lakes leaders - U.S. and Canadian, and their Council helped create the framework for the Great Lakes Compact.

It set forth protocols for managing the lakes.

Despite improvements since the federal act of 1972, problems still threaten the lakes and Wisconsin’s waters. WUWM's Susan Bence explore some of the challenges on Wednesday.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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