Starkweather Creek empties into Lake Monona at Olbrich Park in Madison. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
The Clean Water Act (CWA) was signed into law 50 years ago on Oct. 18 with a simple yet elegant purpose: Make the nation’s waters fishable and swimmable.
Its successes are undeniable. Industrial pollution was vastly curtailed. Wastewater treated was effectively. Rivers once essentially open sewers now support vibrant fisheries. Lake Erie was brought back from the dead. And there were many more advances.
And yet, today, inland lakes in the Upper Midwest and elsewhere face the threat of severe decline – from forces the CWA affects minimally, if at all. Lakes are beset by loss of natural shoreline habitat. Nutrient enrichment drives blooms of toxic blue-green algae. Pollution is flushed into waterways from failing septic systems. Aquatic invasive species are proliferating. Harmful wakes are churning up from large, powerful boats.
There is little to no chance that sweeping new regulations will magically come to the rescue. So now is the time for a new CWA – call it the Clean Water Alliance – a pervasive grassroots initiative in support of responsible lakefront living and wise use of lake resources generally.
The intent here is not to disparage the Clean Water Act or minimize its impacts, which are monumental. At the time the act was passed, most inland lakes were eminently fishable and swimmable, and largely they still are.
But much has changed in the past five decades. Lakes face relentless and unprecedented threats from development. Large homes have replaced small seasonal family cabins. Rainwater flowing off roofs, driveways, walkways and decks carries nutrients, silt, and pesticides and other pollutants into the water. Landowners cut down woods and native vegetation along shorelines, eliminating rich and diverse wildlife habitat.
No one does this maliciously, but the reality is that together we are damaging the resources simply through the individual decisions we make and the kinds of lake-oriented lifestyles we choose. As lakeshore development persists and as the climate warms, challenges to lake health will only increase.
It’s not as if the lakes are utterly defenseless. State, county and local laws and regulations offer levels of protection. On top of that, lake associations, university extensions, county agencies and others offer education in and sometimes financial incentives for best practices in lakeside living.
The best practices they promote are essentially the same. The work they do is helpful. But their efforts tend to be local in scope, fragmented, under-funded, under-staffed, reliant on voluntary action and subject to resistance from those, including policymakers, who place top priority on the right of property owners to do what they want with their land.
A fair question is: In the face of all this, what could a new CWA accomplish? At its most basic, a Clean Water Alliance would proceed from the same premise that drove the Clean Water Act: That we share water resources that are priceless, that their degradation is unacceptable, and that their preservation is a social and moral imperative.
The new CWA would rally behind that premise a diverse coalition of those who treasure our inland waters, including lake property owners, tourists, anglers, boaters, paddlers, wildlife watchers, environmental educators and advocates and water-related based businesses.
It would advocate a set of practices that, if widely followed, would help keep the lakes in a natural condition, preserve habitat, protect scenic values and sustain high water quality. In sum it would ensure that the lakes remain as high-value cultural, environmental and economic assets.
A new CWA could take lessons from a key feature of the Clean Boats Clean Waters laws, and attendant public education, that help protect lakes from the spread of invasive species — simple, consistent messaging. Today, all but the most inattentive or negligent boaters know and understand the need to Inspect, Clean, Drain and Dry their watercraft before launching in a lake. The CWA’s equivalent of those instructions might prescribe:
- Creating or maintaining a shoreline of trees and other natural vegetation.
- Capturing rain that falls on the land before it flows into the lake.
- Maintaining and if need be inspecting and repairing the septic system.
- Leaving aquatic vegetation and fallen trees and branches in the water.
- Avoiding broadcast fertilizers and other yard chemicals.
Beyond that, a new CWA would use education, peer pressure and public recognition to change the societal norm of lakeside living. It would encourage people to remember that what we do on land affects the water and to think first about the lake’s preservation when deciding where and how to develop their properties.
Last but certainly not least, a Clean Water Alliance would become a potent grassroots force to influence lake-protective laws and regulations where necessary – a network of tens or hundreds of thousands ready upon notice to petition legislators, and prepared to vote for those who make lake preservation a priority.
Protecting our lakes is too essential to be left to half measures. A new CWA is a mechanism that could help make sure our fishable, swimmable inland waters stay that way for today and for posterity.
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