The early 70’s were a heady time for nature-lovers. The first Earth Day was in 1970. I remember that early energy of what became known as the “environmental movement.” We had marched for Civil Rights; we had protested the Vietnam War. Now we were going to save the earth. And do you know what? A lot of good came from that energy. The Clean Water Act is one of the highlights.
October 18 marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act. Last night at Discovery World, Milwaukee Riverkeeper hosted an anniversary party to celebrate the enormous positive impact that this legislation has had. As a former Milwaukee Riverkeeper board member I’ve been to many of their annual fall “River Bashes” and this was the most well attended one that I can recall.
Todd Ambs, director of the national River Network, was the guest speaker. His talk focused on both the progress that has been made since the 1972 passage of the act and on the many challenges that we still face. You can read his “40 thoughts for 40 years” on the River Network website.
We are at a critical moment and the “environmental movement,” despite its indisputable success, has been vilified by a surprisingly large segment of an increasingly polarized populace. (In 1972 a bipartisan Congress overrode Nixon’s presidential veto to pass the Clean Water Act.) Ambs commented on the perceived negativity of the environmental movement, using the Civil Rights Movement as an example. He said that when Dr. Martin Luther King made his most famous speech in 1963 he didn’t call it “I have a complaint.” We in the environmental community often have been guilty of predicting gloom and doom. But it doesn’t take long to become either despondent or antagonistic in the face of unrelenting bad news. We can’t afford to emphasize problems without simultaneously celebrating successes. We must hold up our dreams for the earth instead of our complaints.
Ambs quoted Carl Sagan: “Anything else you're interested in is not going to happen if you can't breathe the air and drink the water. Don't sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.”
One of the literal sparks that ignited the Earth Day movement and motivated Congress to pass the Clean Water Act was the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, OH in 1969. In fact, it had caught fire many times over many preceding decades. As Ambs pointed out, rivers no longer catch fire in the U.S., thanks largely to the Clean Water Act. He didn’t go on to add that now, unfortunately, tap water has begun to catch fire instead due to groundwater contamination by the oil shale fracking industry. (If this is news, check out the sobering movie, Gasland.) There is still work to be done.
My dream is for my children and grandchildren -- and their compatriots in other parts of the world -- to have safe and secure drinking water, fishable and swimmable rivers and lakes, and an unabashed love of nature, even if they live in densely populated cities as so many must.
Taking care of our planetary home also will benefit everyone's bottom line. Another Ambs quote, from former WI governor Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day: “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”
For more information on the Clean Water Act and the 40th anniversary, go to the Office ofManagement and Budget website or to an article in the Huffington Post.
Happy birthday, Clean Water Act, and congratulations, Milwaukee Riverkeeper!
A recent outing of the Milwaukee Riverkeeper boat on the Milwaukee River, which is much cleaner today than it was in 1972.