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Turning 40 and Looking Better - Illinois Celebrates Clean Water Act Birthday

photo: Chicago River kayakers      Courtesy of:
photo: Chicago River kayakers Courtesy of:
October 18, 2012

CHICAGO - Forty years ago today, a bipartisan majority in Congress passed the Clean Water Act. While most people who turn 40 tend to say they looked better when they were younger, Illinois waterways actually are looking better with age because of the act.

Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, remembers when waterways such as the Chicago and Fox rivers were looking pretty awful.

"Industrial polluters were putting untreated sewage, municipalities were putting raw sewage into our lakes, into our waterways."

Now, Learner says, Lake Michigan is much cleaner, and people are kayaking on the Chicago River and enjoying the Fox River as well. However, he says, the Asian carp – an invasive species – still is a threat, agricultural runoff from farms in central Illinois still needs to be controlled, and the Chicago River cleanup needs to continue.

As part of the Chicago River renewal, the group Friends of the River uses volunteers to clean up trash along the shoreline and help remove dams to restore the natural flow and fish habitats. All that volunteer power, however, has been no match for the more than 1 billion gallons of wastewater dumped into the river every day. Now that the city has finally agreed to treat that water first, Learner says, the river should continue to look younger as she ages.

"Twenty years from now, they'll see last year when the Metropolitan Water District was forced – then persuaded – to disinfect wastewater going into the Chicago River as a real turning point for our city and the people who live here."

An issue that still needs to be tackled in central Illinois is agricultural runoff. Learner says runoff is not covered by the Clean Water Act, but farmers need to take action on their own.

"Look at low-till, no till techniques. Look at ways, buffer strips and otherwise, of reducing the amount of nitrates and phosphorous that they allow to run off their agricultural fields."

For the Clean Water Act's 40th birthday present, Learner's group has launched a new website – – to advocate and educate Illinoisans about water quality in the state. He says it's filled with the history and struggles of people who are trying to keep Illinois water clean for fishing, swimming, and drinking.

More information is online at

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL