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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Whey discharged from a pipeline. Organic waste from some of Wisconsin's mainstay industries, such as papermaking, brewing, cheesemaking and vegetable canning, posed serious challenges to stemming pollution. © Jerry Rodenberg
Whey discharged from a pipeline. Organic waste from some of Wisconsin's mainstay industries, such as papermaking, brewing, cheesemaking and vegetable canning posed serious challenges to stemming pollution.

© Jerry Rodenberg

October 2002

Clear intentions

Thirty years ago this month the Clean Water Act started the work of recovering the nation's troubled waters. Are we ready for the next stage?

Lisa Gaumnitz


"It was depressing" | The toothless tiger
Washington weighs in | Where do we go next?
Getting water wise | Talking waters

Duane Schuettpelz sees progress in 15 species of fish that now swim a stretch of Wisconsin River where 35 years earlier he found virtually no fish – only dead, smelly water and a mile-long mat of floating sludge.

For Caryl Terrell, progress is seeing Milwaukee restaurant patrons enjoying meals "a railing away from a river that used to stink to high heaven."

And for John Brogan, it's noting the $3,000 per linear foot price realtors command for frontage on the Fox River just south of DePere – 30 times the going rate a generation ago, when the Fox was all but given up for dead.

The federal Clean Water Act turns 30 this month, and these three veteran pollution fighters – a regulator, an environmentalist and a policymaker, respectively – find the surest signs of its success in the Lazarus-like resurrection of Wisconsin's major rivers.

"I have probably seen as much improvement in water quality in that span of time as anybody has ever seen before or will ever see in the future," says Schuettpelz, the DNR's wastewater permits chief, and a precise, analytical man not given to hyperbole. "The Clean Water Act has made that possible."

The landmark legislation set bold goals: assuring all lakes and rivers nationwide would be safe enough to fish in and swim in, and eventually eliminating all wastewater discharges to the nation's waters.

The act sought to reach those goals by ratcheting down so-called pipeline or "point source" pollution – the liquid wastes from factories and sewage treatment plants discharged directly into lakes, rivers and streams. The law set national effluent standards, launched a massive grant program to help communities rebuild aging sewage treatment plants, and included a "citizen suit" provision that allowed environmental watchdogs and other groups to sue polluters and the agencies regulating them.

Schuettpelz and his peers take quiet pride in the dramatic strides Wisconsin has made, but they're also quick to acknowledge that the state and nation have a long way to go to fully achieve "fishable, swimmable waters" and the current Clean Water Act may not get us there.

"We spent 30 years looking at the end of the pipe," says Caryl Terrell, legislative coordinator of Wisconsin's John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club. "Now we have to turn to the other side of the picture and address those problems still undercutting the safety of our surface waters."

"It was depressing"

Despite nearly a century-long record of pollution control legislation and programs, Wisconsin faced a serious water pollution problem after World War II. The boom in manufacturing, population, housing and modern conveniences such as garbage disposals and high phosphate washing detergents significantly increased pollution and quickly outstripped the capacity of wastewater treatment facilities.

"The treatment plant operators were poorly trained, the plants were substandard and they had minimal sampling equipment – it was depressing," recalls Bob Weber, who retired in August 2002 after 33 years as a DNR wastewater engineer, 27 of them spent working with businesses and community sewerage systems in south central Wisconsin.

Fully a quarter of communities provided only "primary" treatment – they screened out large floating wastes, let the solids settle out, and discharged the resulting sludge and wastewater into lakes and rivers. The organic wastes fueled the growth of bacteria and other aquatic organisms that use up oxygen dissolved in water.

Many of Wisconsin's growth industries – dairies, breweries, papermaking and vegetable canning – were big water users. Most of the 700 rural cheese factories and milk processors discharged spoiled milk, whey, and wash-up water into streams. Fish kills were common when summer rains carried runoff into streams from huge stacks of pea vines and other canning factory wastes, according to "Quest for Clean Waters," a 1969 DNR report.

Wisconsin's pulp and paper industry greatly expanded production in the early 1960s. Papermaking generated nearly 15 tons of wastewater for every ton of product, despite having spent more on pollution control than any other industry. Even using the best treatment methods at the time, 40 percent of the chemicals, bark and other wastes from making paper flowed untreated into Wisconsin waters, according to "Protectors of the Land and Water," by Thomas Huffman.

The Izaak Walton League led a successful charge to increase the state pollution control agency's budget in 1949, but state policies and public opinion supported only so much regulation of the state's economic engines, and local officials balked at raising the large sums necessary to upgrade their municipal treatment plants.

The toothless tiger

That laissez-faire approach seemed to be changing about the time Schuettpelz and Weber were hired in the late 1960s to fight water pollution. A series of state government reorganizations in the 1960s consolidated water-related responsibilities into the Department of Natural Resources and provided a big boost in budget, staff and enforcement power to control water pollution.

But the young engineers soon found that the Department of Natural Resources was a toothless tiger. Municipal treatment plants and factories were supposed to limit the amount of pollution they released to Wisconsin waters, but the Department of Natural Resources had no ability to monitor those discharges on a continuing basis. Staff had to prove that a specific municipal treatment plant or factory was causing a pollution problem before seeking corrective action. DNR engineers and biologists conducted water quality and biological surveys every four years on each of the state's 28 river basins. They'd document their findings and make recommendations for each discharger in basin reports aired at often-contentious public hearings.

"Industrial representatives and employees of paper mills would come in (to the hearings) and say 'We're going to move to Alabama if you make us do this,'" Schuettpelz recalls. "Sometimes, they'd plop down pails of fish in front of the hearing examiner to prove they weren't causing a problem."

After each hearing, the engineers would develop an administrative order listing needed corrections, but implementation of that order was subsequently a negotiated affair with the discharger. It ultimately reflected what the discharger said it could do, not what the engineers wanted, Weber says.

"It was a very time-consuming process, there was a whole lot of inconsistency, and it was an ineffective way to deal with the continuing discharge of pollutants," Weber says.

Washington weighs in

Dwindling public confidence in individual state approaches to control water pollution began to resonate at the national level. The media, including the Milwaukee Journal with its Pulitzer Prize-winning 1966 series, "The Spreading Menace," kept a constant stream of reports and photos before citizens, and women's and conservation groups lobbied vigorously for cleaner water.

In Washington D.C., they found a sympathetic audience in the White House and U.S. Senate, according to Harold "Bud" Jordahl, at the time a U.S. Interior Department official who previously served under Gov. Gaylord Nelson in Wisconsin, and would later serve as chairman of the Natural Resources Board (NRB) in Wisconsin.

John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson elevated conservation issues to a policy priority, and senators Gaylord Nelson and Edmund Muskie of Maine led the environmental charge in Congress.

Talking waters
A two-day public forum on Oct. 21-22 at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison brings together citizens and experts to discuss and plan a course of action to sustain Wisconsin waters. Participants will get the chance to review and react to a draft document detailing the health of Wisconsin water, needed legislation, policies and actions.

The forum caps a two-year, statewide initiative led by the nonprofit Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letters known as Waters of Wisconsin or WOW. Through workshops, meetings and electronic networks, the initiative has brought together citizens and representatives from agriculture, conservation groups, industry, government agencies, Native America tribes and the University of Wisconsin system to address the future of Wisconsin waters.

Rarely do we address water resource management and protection in a way that is sensitive to the interconnectivity of all parts of the ecosystems, including communities of people, says Stephen Born, WOW co-chair and University of Wisconsin Urban and Regional Planning Department chair.

For more information on attending the public forum or about Waters of Wisconsin, visit Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts & Letters or call (608)263-1692.

"You had a public consciousness and awareness and a leadership that opened a great, big wide window," recalls Jordahl. "People think Earth Day started things – but it actually was a capstone to a whole lot of things going on in the 1960s."

The Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Wild and Scenic River Areas Act, and the Water Resources Planning Act all were passed during those years. Most significantly for water pollution, Congress approved the 1965 Water Quality Act, which set up the first federal water pollution control program and signaled that the feds were willing to play a bigger role in protecting intrastate waters.

Momentum from that parade of landmark legislation and the public's growing environmental consciousness pushed Congress to pass the Clean Water Act in 1972. It was a "monumental act" that on paper committed the nation to consider ecological concerns ahead of economic costs, Jordahl says.

Municipalities and factories were no longer free to discharge waste into the nation's waters. They would have to seek permits limiting the pollution they could release, monitor their waste discharges and report on their efforts. Civil and criminal penalties could be levied if permits were violated.

And then there was the money. The Clean Water Act authorized $18 billion nationwide over three years to give municipalities substantial grants to upgrade treatment systems, and provided for additional annual appropriations.

"The one overarching thing the Clean Water Act did was put an end to the national debate on runaway industries," says John Brogan, a Kaukauna bank owner and (NRB) member from 1975 to 1981 and 1985 to 1987. "The debate in Green Bay in the 1940s was, 'What do you want – fish or factories?' They could never make that threat again."

Wisconsin became one of the first states to receive authority from the federal government to issue permits.

"We were dedicated to the proposition that we'd enforce the law, but we didn't want a scorched earth policy," recalls Brogan. "We'd do it in a way to accomplish water quality goals without serious economic disruption either to the expansion of cities or to the expansion of mill production."

It was also important to enforce the law fairly, with all facilities – from small milk processing plants to the politically powerful mills, being made to toe the line, Brogan said. "I own a bank in Kaukauna in the middle of Paper Valley, and I didn't make any friends doing this," says Brogan, a self-described idealist and "prickly pear." "But it was important to do this in an even-handed manner."

The state tackled the worst pollution problems first, targeting municipal treatment plants on the Wisconsin and Fox rivers, then working on major metro centers like Milwaukee.

Improvements in the Fox Valley, coupled with a new approach called "wasteload allocation," allowed the mills to meet the new Clean Water Act standards while avoiding the risk of shutting down during summer months when low water levels increased the risk of fish kills.

Wasteload allocation (WA) was a unique idea. Under the old way of doing business, each company or community discharging to the river had limits on the strength and quantity of liquid wastes it could send down the pipeline. As new businesses were added and communities grew, the amount of waste entering the rivers increased. Under WA, DNR engineers and biologists modeled river flow and river life to determine how much waste the river could assimilate without damaging fish and other aquatic life. All businesses and communities were authorized to discharge a portion of that capacity. The dischargers helped determine the system for allocating portions of the wasteload to existing businesses, and saved a portion for future growth.

Paper mills on the Fox River were especially troublesome because many were located on a small stretch of river. The Wasteload Allocation system, developed by DNR, the mills, local communities and environmental groups, controls the amount of waste discharged into the river. © DNR Photo
Paper mills on the Fox River were especially troublesome because many were located on a small stretch of river. The Wasteload Allocation system, developed by DNR, the mills, local communities and environmental groups, controls the amount of waste discharged into the river.

© DNR Photo

Another tool DNR developed was a moratorium on new sewer hookups for communities that failed to properly treat their waste. The agency used the courts and other enforcement tools to secure compliance. The State Legislature helped by creating a grant program followed by a low-interest, revolving loan fund to help finance treatment plant upgrades for smaller communities that might have trouble tapping into federal funds. These improved wastewater treatment plants became sources of civic pride rather than the forgettable part of urban infrastructure they were before.

This approach spurred the seven pulp and paper mills along the Fox to pour $300 million into upgrades. Those improvements cut the daily pollution discharges into the Fox from 425,000 to 22,000 pounds of solids a day.

"We proved that you could have fish and factories instead of fish or factories," Brogan says. "Not one of the 72 factories statewide closed." By 1983, point sources were regulated by permits that assured sufficient dissolved oxygen levels to sustain aquatic life. This was a major step in our evolving pollution control programs.

Where do we go next?

Paradoxically, the act responsible for cleaning up so many of our rivers and lakes may now be holding back progress.

"People think the Clean Water Act covered everything, but it didn't," says Bruce Baker, deputy administrator of DNR's water programs and a key shaper of DNR water policies for the last 20 years.

"It's relatively clear that we need to modernize the Clean Water Act and make it relevant to today's issues." Those issues include polluted runoff from farms, cities and construction sites; invasive species; loss of wetlands and shoreline habitat; and concerns over groundwater quantity and quality.

"Many of our remaining water quality problems cut across federal laws," notes Water Division Administrator Susan Sylvester. "We won't solve problems like air emissions of mercury affecting water and prompting fish advisories just be relying on the Clean Water Act. We need to combine our efforts with other programs."

Congress has failed to reauthorize clean water legislation since 1987, spurring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to seek the same results through administrative rules. These rules haven't been funded, and mandates without money are now falling out of favor under the current administration, Baker says.

Environmentally progressive states like Wisconsin have forged ahead, notably by passing comprehensive rules to require farms, cities and construction sites to reduce polluted runoff, now regarded as the largest remaining pollution threat to Wisconsin's waters. Other draft rules aim to reduce mercury contamination in water resulting from air emissions.

"It's much like where we were in 1972," Baker says. "We're starting to create some unevenness between states and we're not dealing with issues collectively. That's a problem if you're dealing with the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River (that cross many boundaries)."

He thinks Congress needs to set new national goals and new national water quality standards to take advantage of improved technology and research. States need more flexibility to attack their most pressing problems with approaches that work for them, Baker says. And Wisconsin needs to press ahead instead of waiting on the federal government.

"We need to continue taking steps to protect and restore our lakes, streams, groundwater and drinking water supplies," Sylvester adds. "These resources are vital to our health, our state's economy and our quality of life."

Thomas Schmidt recently retired after 20 years as the Wisconsin Paper Council's executive director, then president. He wants to ensure Wisconsin's future pollution regulations allow more flexibilty than the Clean Water Act, which prescribed the technology dischargers had to use to meet the effluent standards.

"Diminishing returns have set in," Schmidt says. "We're spending more and more money to remove ever smaller amounts of pollution."

Dischargers need to have the opportunity to find the most cost effective ways to meet Wisconsin's standards, Schmidt says, and industry must be at the table as government develops new water policies. "Much more can be accomplished in a shorter period of time when government and business work together," he says.

Schmidt offers as proof the partnership the council initiated with the Department of Natural Resources in 1992 to reduce or eliminate potentially harmful byproducts from the manufacturing process. From 1992 to 2000, the 42 participating facilities decreased all process-related pollution by 60 million tons per year while increasing production by 13 percent.

Al Shea, who directs DNR's Bureau of Watershed Management, notes that the agency is developing more flexible approaches. One example, known as "Green Tier" and developed with the help of stakeholders, would give companies with a proven environmental performance greater flexibility in how they achieve state pollution standards.

The runoff rules effective this month also provide flexibility in how farmers, cities, developers and road builders reach their respective performance standards for reducing runoff. "With passage of the runoff rules, we now have a more complete toolbox to manage water resources," he says.

Water staff now focus on managing water resources within their watersheds, not the artificial boundaries that county lines establish, and by taking into consideration the activities on the land that drains into those waters. External partnership teams are now in place to help DNR staff manage natural resources in collaboration with the local governments, businesses, organizations and citizens in a watershed.

"We have to have the regulatory agencies evolve their role from regulator to facilitator, technical expert and compliance monitor," Shea says. "In the foreseeable future, we're never going to have a large increase in staff and money."

"Our role as regulators shouldn't and won't go away," Sylvster said, "but we need to assist local governments and businesses to resolve these issues. We just can't solve water quality problems without their help. Society has to accept that it needs to take an increased role. We need a re-emergence of social interest in protecting our environment."

Terrell agrees that citizens hold the key.

"You have to continually protect the resources because we're impacting them every day. You're not ever going to be able to check this off the list as done. There are still individuals, (communities) and industrial sectors that are abusing water resources...

"The way Wisconsin is going to reach the goal of fishable, swimmable waters is to have people love their rivers and lakes, and fight to get them clean."

Lisa Gaumnitz is a senior public affairs manager covering DNR's water programs.

Getting water wise
The following websites provide more information on the Clean Water Act, events to commemorate its 30th anniversary, and suggest how readers can help advance the goals of restoring, maintaining and protecting America's water resources:

America's Clean Water Foundation website at Year of Clean Water. Congress has declared 2002 The Year of Clean Water and the nonprofit America's Clean Water Foundation is serving as the primary sponsor and national coordinator of efforts, including coordinating and facilitating a series of events throughout October 2002 to mark the legislative milestone. Find out about the history of the Clean Water Act, Year of Clean Water events, Year of Clean Water publications, videos, posters, and bookmarks.

The Clean Water Network website at Clean Water Network and click on the Clean Water Act icon. The network is an alliance of more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations working to strengthen federal clean water policy. Find out about the Clean Water Act, progress made under the law in cleaning up America's waters, and the work that remains to be done.

Wisconsin Environmental Decade website at Clean Wisconsin. This Madison-based group is launching a multi-year effort to focus on achieving the goals of the Clean Water Act. Find a calendar of water-related workshops and events that celebrate and promote the goals of the Clean Water Act, as well as information on other ways people can work to support the goals.