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Toxic Conditions in Wisconsin Before the Clean Water Act

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S Bence
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The Milwaukee River Today

The Clean Water Act sprang to life in 1972, largely due to public outrage. Lakes and rivers around the country had become increasingly toxic.

The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire because of all the pollutants in it; nearby in Lake Erie massive numbers of fish died.

Wisconsin faced major obstacles. Engineer Lyman Wible worked with the Department of Natural Resources’ water resources team. He paints a bleak water quality picture statewide.

“We had publicly owned sewage treatment plants that had been built as WPA projects in the ‘30s and virtually nothing done to them after that. We had treatment plant operators who didn’t know how to do what they were supposed to do. We had cheese whey discharged raw. There were lots of fish kills. Dairy was an issue, construction was an issue. We didn’t have any program to repair those problems,” Wible says.

"I remember the Chicago Tribune - there would be cover pictures on their magazine and in the newspaper showing a hand embedded in real sticky-looking muck and decaying algae with dying alewives and fish strewn all along the beach," Stephen Born, UW-Madison emeritus professor, says.

Will Wawrzyn grew up close to the Milwaukee River. He conjures up vivid childhood memories of a very different waterway.

“I was born in 1952 about a quarter mile from Kern Park and I spent a considerable amount of time playing, doing what kids do around water. And I do remember going down there to capture bait, insect larvae for perch fishing off the piers. I remember one of my uncles telling us not to touch the water,” Wawrzyn says.

The warnings didn’t stop Wawrzyn from exploring. “Every spring when the ice went off the river, we’d go down to see what was left and every year there was a significant kill off of fish,” he says.

It wasn’t until later that he realized what had been driving the life out of the Milwaukee River was sewage and industrial discharges.

“I remember being at the library at UWM looking through documents that provided results all of the monitoring of lakes and streams in and around the Milwaukee area. They were pretty dramatic in terms of the amount of pollution that was being discharged at the time,” Wawrzyn says.

120 miles north, Bud Harris had been chronicling the impact of toxins on wetlands around UW-Green Bay, where he was a budding ecologist.

The Green Bay basin supplies 25 percent of Lake Michigan’s water and historically was a region rich with paper mills. They discharged their wastewater into the Fox River, which flows into the bay.

Harris remembers navigating the Fox with a crop of new students and seeing, for the first time, the fiber dumped into the river.

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Credit UW-Green Bay
"I started my observationson on westshore wetlands in 1972 and retired in 1999. The first masters thesis was completed in 1976 and the last in 2005 four years after I retired. This photo was taken during survey work around 1990," H.J. "Bud" Harris, UW-Green Bay emeritus professor.

“The fiber formed mats on the bottom and of course it produced methane as it discomposed. So the methane gets under that matt and it lifts it up to the surface. People used to say the river was burping, because the gas would escape in huge bubbles of methane,” Harris says.

Harris and his students dug deeper, monitoring birds that fed and bred in nearby marshes.

“Students began to find birds with deformities, crossed bills, and mortality, congenital deformities in chicks," Harris says.

Around the country, public concern reached a fevered pitch on April 22, 1970.

Wisconsin’s own Senator Gaylord Nelson spearheaded the first Earth Day. It attracted 20 million protestors across the country.

Years later, the EPA’s first administrator William Ruckelshaus reflected on impact the groundswell had on Congress and President Richard Nixon.

“It exploded on the country. It forced a Republican administration and a president, he’d never thought of this very much. It forced him to deal with it because the public said, it’s intolerable,” Rucklshaus said.

Nixon responded. He created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Congress acted too. Senator Edmund Muskie from Maine introduced the Clean Water Act. It regulates discharges into waterways – and set penalties for violators.

President Nixon vetoed the act because Congress attached a $18 billion budget to it. But Congress, both parties, overwhelmingly overrode his veto.

In Wisconsin at the time, former Governor Tony Earl was serving in the Assembly.

“Many of us, and I include myself among those many, were greatly inspired by Gaylord’s example and were trying very hard to make all of his good intentions come to fruition,” Earl says.

Earl says both Democrats and Republicans legislators in Wisconsin supported the Clean Water Act and crafted state legislation needed to set it in motion.

On Tuesday, WUWM's Susan Bence will explore how far the bipartisan tide has carried Wisconsin.

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UW-Madison emeritus professor of Urban and Regional Planning and Environment Studies Stephen Born accumulated a lifetime of water resource experience over his career. Born shared his perspective on the nuances of the Clean Water Act, and the important milestones that led to its creation for this Lake Effect interview with Susan Bence.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.