Celebrating 40 years of progress on clean water

May 13, 2012 Issues: Environment

The Clinton River is a very different waterway today than it was 40 years ago thanks to two key developments in 1972 that have had a profound impact on the river’s water quality.

Back then, decades of uncontrolled dumping of industrial wastewater and raw sewage had taken a huge environmental toll on water quality in the river. There were no fish to speak of in the river, and certainly none that you would care to eat. Far from being an asset to the communities along its banks, the Clinton River was slowly dying.

That might have been the end of the story except for the passage of the Clean Water Act -- which spelled out ambitious programs for water quality improvement -- and the formation of the Clinton River Watershed Council. We should celebrate their anniversaries by redoubling our commitment to water quality throughout the region.

Passage of the Clean Water Act 40 years ago was one of the most important environmental milestones in our nation’s history. It marked a fundamental change in how our nation views and manages water in this country. After decades of polluting the Great Lakes and their tributaries -- including the Clinton River -- we finally recognized that healthy rivers and lakes are vital to the health of our communities, and we required that steps be taken to restore them.

In the same year, the formation of the Clinton River Watershed Council marked another important turning point. It takes time and resources to undo decades of pollution and neglect, and still more time for an ecosystem to heal. Restoring an urban waterway like the Clinton River is especially complicated. I am convinced that the effort to heal the Clinton River occurred much more quickly as a result of advocates who worked on its behalf to coordinate action and focus attention and resources. Thanks to the work of the Clinton River Watershed Council and its members and member units of government, real progress continues to be made on water quality, and once again the Clinton River is used for fishing, canoeing, and hiking. The Council’s efforts in the areas of watershed management, stewardship and education have also had a tangible, positive impact.

There was a time when we turned our backs on our rivers and lakes. Today, we know better. As the hard-won progress in the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair shows, waterfront development is a real generator of economic activity and a one-of-a-kind asset to communities.

We need to build on the progress that has been made in the Clinton River Watershed as well as Lake St. Clair. This requires a partnership of effort by federal, state, and local governments, as well as local stakeholders and advocacy groups. It also needs a continued commitment of resources from the federal government, especially when it comes to funding the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Now is not the time to cut funding for this vital initiative. Congress and the Obama Administration must also work to clarify and restore long-standing Clean Water Act protections for U.S. streams, wetlands, and other waters.

But the real work of completing the restoration of the Clinton River will continue to be done by groups like the Clinton River Watershed Council and the many volunteers and sponsors that support their efforts. The Watershed Council’s work underscores the value that a healthy Clinton River holds for our citizens and communities.