U.S. Water News Online
CHICAGO -- When Tom Lindblade began canoeing the Fox River
in Chicago's western suburbs decades ago, he knew what to expect come
midsummer. When the weather was hot and the water slow, the river
would turn pea-soup green and smell "pretty nasty."
Today, Lindblade, 64, of Rockford, still paddles the Fox River
about two or three times a year and has seen a "tremendous change"
for the better in the water quality. He's even seen fishermen pull
good-sized bass from below a dam near Aurora.
"They're catching just about any kind of fish there," said
Lindblade, vice president of the Illinois Paddling Council. "Now, I'm
not sure I'd really want to eat a lot of them, but the fish are
As the landmark Clean Water Act celebrates its 35th anniversary,
Lindblade's experience is representative -- a story of huge gains
with work yet to be done.
Industries no longer discharge untreated wastewater. Towns no
longer use rivers and streams as conduits for sewage. And fish and
other aquatic life are returning to waterways once too polluted for
them to survive.
"Our idea of a messed up waterway now is different than our idea
of a messed up waterway 35 years ago," said Toby Frevert, who joined
the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency a year or two before the
Clean Water Act became law and now is manager of the agency's water
pollution control division.
But Illinois still hasn't met two key goals of the Clean Water
Act: to make all waters fishable and swimmable by 1983 and to
eliminate pollution discharges by 1985. There have been daunting
challenges in meeting those goals.
By the time the law took effect in 1972, industries, agriculture
and urban development had taken a tremendous toll on waterways.
When Frevert traveled around the state in the early days of his
career, he saw streams with little or no oxygen -- and therefore no
fish -- and industrial plants such as paper mills and meatpacking
facilities dumping wastewater with very limited treatment.
It wasn't unusual for the man handling a small town's sewage
treatment plant to also collect garbage, patch potholes and plow
snow, he said.
The Clean Water Act came about partly as a result of public
outrage over a fire on Cleveland's Cuyahoga River in 1969. Its
objective was to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and
biological integrity of the nation's waters."
It established a structure for regulating discharges of pollutants
into American waters and gave the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency the authority to implement pollution control programs.
Yet some Illinois rivers, lakes and streams still are polluted
with heavy metals, such as mercury, and PCBs -- which can build up in
fish and eventually affect people's health -- nutrients such as
fertilizer, which can lower oxygen concentrations; and pathogens,
such as fecal coliform bacteria.
In its 2006 report on the quality of the state's waterways, the
state environmental agency -- which enforces the federal act -- rated
about 40 percent of the river and stream miles it had assessed as
fair or poor for fish consumption, 38 percent poor or fair for
supporting aquatic life, and almost 88 percent fair or poor for
primary contact, such as swimming.
The agency also rated 27 percent of the Illinois lakes it assessed
as fair for fish consumption, about 13 percent fair or poor for
aquatic life and about 53 percent fair for primary contact.
"We've made great strides, but there's a lot to be done," said
Jill Watson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois EPA, who said the state's
industrial history resulted in a lot of recovery work.
An environmental advocacy group, Environment Illinois, said the
state hasn't done enough.
Using EPA data, the group issued a report that found that 46
percent of the 276 major Illinois facilities with federal water
discharge permits exceeded their permit limits at least once in 2005,
ranking Illinois 37th in the nation.
The total number of times Clean Water Act permit limits were
exceeded in 2005 was 693, placing Illinois 12th among states,
according to Environment Illinois.
"The results are clear. Facilities in Illinois and across the
country continue to dump more pollution than allowed by law," said
LuCinda Hohmann, the federal field organizer for Environment
But Watson questioned how Environment Illinois did its analysis.
"We don't allow people to go around having disregard for the
environment," she said. "If we find out they have violated a permit,
they are subject for potential violation notices and potential
enforcement if they can't come into compliance."
But there is no doubt there have been huge gains in Illinois water
quality in the past 35 years.
Frevert said perhaps the biggest success story is the Illinois
River, particularly the stretch from Ottawa to Peoria.
He's heard unconfirmed stories that, during the Depression era,
sludge was so thick on some stretches of the river that a young boy
could cross on the matted mess.
"Now the Illinois River's got sauger and walleye and species of
fish that my father's generation would have never dreamed could live
in that river," Frevert said.
He said the challenges for the future are more subtle and
complicated than the obvious problems with sewage treatment and
industrial waste first tackled under the Clean Water Act.
Some of the pollution comes from indirect sources that aren't
regulated by the law, possibly originating in a smokestack 100 miles
away from the waterway, or diffuse runoff from an agricultural
operation. And more sophisticated treatments of wastewater usually
requires more energy, which then generates waste, he said.
Margaret Frisbie is executive director of Friends of the Chicago
River, a group founded in 1979 at a time when the Chicago River was
considered by many to be a hopeless cause.
As the river's quality has improved, it has drawn kayakers and
canoeists and pricey condos along its banks. But Frisbie hopes the
waterway becomes even cleaner -- currently, it's undergoing a major
evaluation, called a "use attainability analysis," that could change
the river's water quality standards.
That review is supposed to be done every three years, but it's
been about 20 years since the last one, she said, illustrating that
state and federal environmental regulators need more resources.
Still, she calls the Clean Water Act "tremendously successful."
"Because it's a phased approach, it's not unrealistic. It's step
by step by step," she said. "In my mind, it's like doing yoga --
where every step is an improvement. And that's how the Clean Water
Act was designed. It's moving forward through logical steps to
ultimately achieve the best thing."
Return to the
U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water
Use a comma to separate e-mail addresses:
Hi, I thought you might like to read this article.