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Clear Progress: The Clean Water Act at 40Celebrating 40 years of clean water progress in Wisconsin

Clean water heroes

Duane Schuettpelz<br />Credit:David Medaris
Duane Schuettpelz
Credit:David Medaris

"I've probably seen as much change in water quality, or improvement in water quality, as anyone ever saw or ever will see..." Back then, "birds were literally walking across the sludge on the Fox and Wisconsin rivers." - Duane Schuettpelz, retired DNR wastewater section chief, as quoted in Thanks for Clean Rivers, May 15, 2008 Isthmus

Know of a Clean Water Hero? Tell us!

Share your photos and stories of Wisconsin's clean water heros and we'll include them in a special year-end feature.

Fast Facts Wisconsin has:

Permit leader: Wisconsin was one of the first states to receive federal authority to issue permits and the first to get those permits done with limits on pollutants that allowed the receiving waters to sustain aquatic life.

River progress: Levels of visible and chemical pollution discharged dropped significantly in rivers. For example, mercury levels on the Mississippi River near Red Wing, Minn., decreased three-fold; Fox River paper mills cut pollution from 425,000 to 22,000 pounds of solids a day; Milwaukee went from as many as 60 combined sewer overflows a year to 2.5; and phosphorus from point sources has been cut by 67 percent since 1994.

Lakes progress: 75 percent of Wisconsin lakes assessed for a 2012 report to Congress exhibited excellent or good water quality, and the number of lakes judged as such has grown since 1980 in each of the classifications DNR has assigned lakes.

Wetland progress: Wetland loss slowed significantly from the 5 million acres drained or filled by the 1980s to about 1,400 acres a year in 1991, and to several hundred acres today.

Watershed approach: Today Wisconsin issues individually tailored permits to about 1,000 municipal and industrial dischargers and covers thousands more -- everything from freighters to pesticide applicators -- with general permits. But efforts now focus on reducing all sources of pollutants coming from activities on land draining to a particular lake or river. Read detailed descriptions of how Wisconsin does this in the Wisconsin Water Quality Report to Congress - Year 2012."

From suds and "swamps" to nature's waterpark

Now a mecca for fishing, boating, paddling and scenic beauty, 40 years ago Wisconsin's major rivers and lakes were choked with poorly treated wastes from municipal treatment plants and factories and its wetlands were fast disappearing. The landmark federal Clean Water Act, passed by Congress in 1972, started to change all of that. It required wastewater dischargers to get permits with stricter pollution controls, protected wetlands by requiring dredge and fill permits, and provided federal funding to states and municipalities to invest in upgrading wastewater treatment plants and hiring needed staff.

Read more about the Clean Water Act:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Clean Water Act page

Proving you can have fish and factories

Wisconsin moved quickly to carry out the Clean Water Act. DNR hired new engineers, biologists, and grant administrators to write the permits and work with municipal and industrial plant operators and consulting engineers. They developed innovative approaches that cleaned up rivers without halting the growth of cities or factories, succeeding, as a former Natural Resources Board member says, in proving "that you could have fish and factories instead of fish or factories."

Read more:

"Clear Intentions," in the October 2002, Natural Resources magazine

More water work to be done

Over time, it became apparent in Wisconsin and elsewhere that the Clean Water Act alone wasn't enough to achieve its lofty goals of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters. Stymied in Congress, national and state governments pursued other options to meet emerging threats to clean water and ongoing concerns with long-recognized pollutants, with Wisconsin leading the way, including, in 2001, becoming the first state to restore protections to seasonal wetlands following a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Learn more in Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine and on our web:

A Community Returns to Its Rivers

More about Wisconsin's waterfront renaissance

Wisconsin's Natural Resources magazine has chronicled the problems, progress and partnerships behind the renaissance of many major Wisconsin waters. Check out these links below and search the A-Z story topic index for more.

Get involved


More than 1,200 volunteers measure water quality in lakes and more than 500 do so for rivers.

Give your favorite water a checkup!

Citizens provide elbow grease, advocacy, funding for many water protection and restoration efforts, and a growing role in assessing our waters' health. To get involved, follow the links below or join a statewide or local lake association, fishing club, land trust or other organization.

Teach the children well

Tap into education grants

Communities and schools can tap into a new grant program for innovative projects related to water education and conservation. The Water Grant Program is offered by the Wisconsin Environmental Education Foundation and its partners.

Get easy-to-use water lessons

Teachers and youth leaders can find easy-to-use activities and lessons to help increase kids' awareness and appreciation of water resources through Project Wet.