Federal law passed 50 years ago saved the Great Lakes and transformed many of the nation’s waterways

Three smiling women wearing bright orange outdoor gear stand in a boat in a waterway holding a very large sturgeon.
A crew from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a sturgeon that they recently caught in the Detroit River, tagged and released. Photo: Jason Fischer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

One of John Hartig’s most vivid childhood memories was seeing smoke billowing into the sky near his home in Detroit as the Rouge River burned. The year was 1969, and the Rouge was one of four severely polluted rivers in the Great Lakes basin that caught fire at various times in the 1950s and ’60s. The Chicago, Buffalo and Cuyahoga rivers also burned.

Nowadays, people kayak in those rivers, fish and wildlife populations have rebounded, and the waterways have become community focal points. Beaver, river otter and lake sturgeon have returned to the Detroit River, which was once so polluted that birds died after landing in its oil-coated water.

Hartig, a longtime freshwater scientist, said the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 transformed the Great Lakes and many rivers that feed the lakes — from convenient dumping grounds for municipal and industrial waste into functional ecosystems that communities now treasure. It was the first law requiring all 50 states to regulate the volume of contaminants discharged directly into lakes and rivers.

“Before the Clean Water Act, municipal wastewater treatment facilities and industries could basically discharge unlimited amounts of untreated wastewater,” said Hartig, a visiting scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor, Ontario. “The difference in surface water quality since the law was passed has been like night and day.”

Still, much work remains.

The Clean Water Act required that all lakes and rivers in the U.S. be fishable and swimmable by 1983, and it called for eliminating all water pollution by 1985. To help achieve that, the law directed over $1 trillion to help cities upgrade wastewater treatment facilities.

Before the Clean Water Act, municipal wastewater treatment facilities and industries could basically discharge unlimited amounts of untreated wastewater. The difference in surface water quality since the law was passed has been like night and day.”
John Hartig headshot. John Hartig, visiting scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor, Ontario

Those clean water mandates are far from being met, according to government data. One recent study found about half of the nation’s lakes and rivers have areas that are unfit for swimming or fishing due to excessive pollution. Cities and industries still discharge pollutants directly into lakes and rivers, albeit in far lower quantities than in the past.

Despite those lingering challenges, environmental advocates, scientists and government officials agree that the nation’s waterways are far cleaner overall than they were 50 years ago.

“The Clean Water Act has transformed the Great Lakes, which helped fuel the rebirth of communities around the lakes,” said Kim Gleffe, a program officer with Mott’s Environment team. “Areas of the lakes that people used to avoid due to pollution are now popular community resources that support a wide variety of activities.”

Lake Erie may be the best example of how the law brought about a renaissance in Great Lakes water quality. It was declared dead in the 1960s, a victim of rampant pollution. Today, the lake is ringed by popular parks and beaches, and it supports one of the world’s best walleye fisheries.

A 1960s-era snapshot shows an aerial view of a polluted waterway and a barren shoreline with cars and industrial equipment and buildings.
Pollution discharges, like this one in Green Bay, were common in the Great Lakes basin prior to passage of the Clean Water Act. Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Funding organizations that work on freshwater issues, including those related to the Clean Water Act, has been a pillar of Mott’s environmental grantmaking over the past three decades. Since 1990, the Foundation has provided more than 100 grants, totaling nearly $18 million, to support work specifically aimed at implementing the Clean Water Act.

The EPA currently is using the Clean Water Act to address the presence of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, in the nation’s surface waters. The so-called “forever chemicals,” which are used in firefighting foam and a myriad of consumer products, are turning up in municipal water systems and private wells across the country. Mott supports organizations working to address the PFAS crisis in the Great Lakes region.

“This 50-year-old law is proving to be a powerful tool for communities and government agencies working to address PFAS contamination in lakes, rivers and drinking water,” said Melanie Moore, associate program officer on Mott’s Environment team.

While the Clean Water Act did much to improve the nation’s waterways, it does not address polluted runoff from agricultural operations, said Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. The center is a Mott grantee.

“The Clean Water Act has largely succeeded in what it set out to do,” Hoffman said. “The big hole in the law is that it excluded polluted runoff from agriculture, and that’s the biggest source of water pollution in Minnesota.”

The federal government has relied primarily on voluntary programs that encourage farmers to take steps to prevent polluted runoff from draining off the land and into nearby surface waters. Some of those programs offer financial incentives.

The Clean Water Act does regulate wastewater produced by industrial-scale livestock farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations. A single CAFO typically houses thousands of animals, which collectively generate large volumes of wastewater. Pollution from CAFOs has been linked to toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie, as well as polluted streams and contaminated drinking water wells in numerous communities across the Great Lakes basin.

Within the basin, the power of the Clean Water Act has been amplified by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The U.S. and Canadian governments signed that agreement in 1972, one month before the Clean Water Act became law.

The agreement was a binational commitment to maintain and restore the physical, biological and chemical integrity of waters in the Great Lakes basin. It called for an ecosystem approach to protecting the lakes and a ban on the discharge of persistent toxic chemicals. It also established a framework for identifying and cleaning up the worst toxic hotspots in the Great Lakes, called areas of concern.

A river runs through a heavily polluted industrial area with no vegetation.
The Clean Water Act played a key role in restoring the Buffalo River. These images show the same stretch of river in the 1960s (top) and in 2013. Photo: Courtesy of the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper
A river runs through a an aerial view of a cityscape. Green grass and vegetation line the waterway.
Photo: James Cavanaugh, courtesy of the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper

On the U.S. side, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement also helped pave the way for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Over the past decade, that program has provided more than $3 billion for over 6,000 projects aimed at cleaning up toxic hotspots, restoring fish and wildlife habitat, and keeping invasive species from entering the lakes. Those projects have improved water quality, as well as fish and wildlife populations, and they also have provided an economic boost in numerous coastal communities.

The Clean Water Act and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement have been used in tandem to restore and protect the Great Lakes. The law established a regulatory structure that forced water quality improvements in the United States, while the binational agreement held the U.S. and Canada accountable to their citizenries, and each other, for protecting and restoring the lakes.

“This work is never really done — water quality remains a challenge in many communities across the United States,” said Sam Passmore, director of Mott’s Environment program. “But we’ve made great progress over the past 50 years, thanks to the Clean Water Act and the countless individuals who have worked tirelessly to implement it.”