Answer: Their success can be linked to landmark legislation that turns 40 years old this year.
While the fall campaign season inevitably will target government regulations as obstacles to progress, sometimes we need to stop and recognize: "Wow, that was really the right thing to do." So it is with the Clean Water Act and Title IX, both of which were enacted in 1972. This is noteworthy because younger generations take the progress created by these laws for granted. They have to know it was not always this way.
I thought about the significance of marking anniversaries earlier this summer at a Lynx game. Lindsay Whalen was particularly fierce, scoring 25 points, with eight assists. It also happened to be the game where all WNBA teams paid special tribute to the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal law that bans gender discrimination in education.
While Title IX applies to more than sports opportunities, the federal law is credited with launching the rapid expansion of girls' participation in many sports that were previously for boys only. Girls like young Lindsay Whalen now happily spend hours on basketball courts, soccer fields and hockey rinks, likely unaware that there was a time that those skill- and character-building opportunities weren't widely available to girls.
So, too, the Clean Water Act (CWA) turns 40 this October. The CWA is the backbone of water protection at every level of government. The CWA moved sewage treatment from a novelty and luxury to an absolute public-health expectation.
It is stunning to remember how common it was just four decades ago for raw sewage to flow untreated into rivers like the Mississippi and Minnesota. Industrial discharges led to travesties like the Cuyahoga River catching fire. A 1964 fish survey of the Mississippi between Hastings and St.Paul showed two fish -- just two! The CWA set out the fundamental regulatory framework to not only clean up past water pollution, but also to prevent future water from becoming polluted. It seems so obvious now, but truthfully it was very ambitious.
In 2002, the Redwood River in southwestern Minnesota became the first of a dozen water bodies in Minnesota to be taken off the impaired-waters list, having been successfully remediated for dissolved oxygen. Although it still has ongoing pollution and sediment issues, the Mississippi River today is "fishable and swimmable," which are core standards found in the CWA.
While some water bodies are sufficiently improved, the list of impaired waters remains stubbornly long, and our work and diligence in enforcing the CWA regulations cannot diminish. Newer pollution challenges will press this generation born after the passage of the CWA to come together to solve different environmental threats. The public's support in protecting Minnesota's spectacular water resources makes us the envy of other states around the nation trying to protect their waterways.
I trust that we will never go back to a time when there were no girls' soccer teams and when rivers caught on fire, but we need events like 40th anniversary celebrations to remind people that things weren't always this way. It took bipartisan political will and action to make change in 1972.
Rivers don't get clean by accident. The Clean Water Act made it possible. The growth of women's sports would never have occurred as it did without Title IX. We cannot take these progressive steps for granted. We must let younger generations know that sometimes laws force change, and those laws can directly improve our quality of life.
Michelle Beeman is deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.