Today's generations may have trouble grasping just how horrifying the nation's water quality was a few decades ago. But a 1969 Time magazine article quickly puts it in perspective. A few weeks after the Cuyahoga River burned in Cleveland, the magazine reported widespread pollution unthinkable today. "Animal grease balls as big as oranges'' filled the Missouri River downstream from packing plants. Lake Erie was a "gigantic cesspool" and "Even wading is unpleasant; as many as 30,000 sludge worms carpet each square of lake bottom.''
Landmark legislation known today as the Clean Water Act passed with broad support during the Nixon administration and played a key role in the recovery of the nation's waterways. Unfortunately, two relatively recent, bitterly divided U.S. Supreme Court decisions have narrowed the scope of the 1972 law -- at the heart of the matter is whether waters are considered "navigable" -- and jeopardized the critical protection from pollution it provides for the nation's rivers, streams and wetlands. A bill called the Clean Water Restoration Act currently being weighed by the U.S. Senate would restore the law's protections. Minnesotans -- who overwhelmingly passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment last November -- need to ensure the state's congressional delegation places as high a priority on protecting water resources.
This isn't just about our 10,000-plus lakes. The state's also home to the Mississippi River headwaters as well as the geologically unique "Prairie Potholes" region, a critical habitat for migratory waterfowl. According to Ducks Unlimited, more than 60 percent of state streams and more than 70 percent of isolated wetlands in the prairie pothole region may now lie outside the original law's protections. The Supreme Court action recently jeopardized pollution protection for two Minnesota lakes -- Bah Lakes in Douglas County and Boyer Lake in Becker County. Both were determined to be outside the law's scope because they were isolated and unconnected to interstate commerce and therefore, essentially not navigable enough. Government agencies later reversed that decision.
The bill faces a key Senate committee vote, likely later this month. Its champions include Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Minnesota Democratic Rep. James Oberstar, who plans to reintroduce the legislation in the U.S. House. Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who sits on the committee considering the bill, has been criticized by some conservationists for her "silence" on it. The legislation enjoys much broader support than the usual liberal environmentalists. Backers include respected hunting and fishing groups, as well as the Republicans for Environmental Protection group. Among the most eloquent supporters is Sherwood Boehlert, a former Republican congressman from New York, who writes that Congress clearly intended a broad interpretation of the law's scope when passing it originally.
Opponents of the Clean Water Restoration Act believe it dramatically increases federal authority, with some antigovernment ideologues arguing that gutters will now be regulated. Less partisan experts agree that the legislation is a clarification of a well-respected law that worked smoothly for decades. The bill also maintains common-sense exemptions for agriculture and other industry. While additional work is needed by lawmakers to address agricultural groups' concerns, the bill deserves the best efforts of the Minnesota congressional delegation to make it a reality.