published January 9, 2013

GLISTEN in Perspective: the Clean Water Act Turns 40

By Glenn Odenbrett, NCSCE

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Clean Water Act and the bi-national Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, both responses to the extreme pollution plaguing many of the nation's drinking water resources. The most dramatic – and infamous - examples were Cleveland's "burning" Cuyahoga River and the Midwest's "dead" Lake Erie, choked with bright green toxic algal blooms.
Exactly what enforcement of the Clean Water Act has accomplished since then, along with what remains to be done and how, were the focus of the recent Water Quality Standards Academy that I was selected to attend to represent NCSCE. The Academy was sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Over the past 40 years, significant progress has been made in controlling "point source" pollution from industrial discharges and municipal wastewater treatment plants. As a result, many of the nation's degraded waterways are on the way to becoming "fishable" and "swimmable" again. However, significant challenges remain in identifying and controlling "non-point" pollution sources. Among them is rising storm water runoff due to loss of natural habitat such as wetlands, a result of the dramatic increase in urban and suburban impervious surfaces over the past 40 years; another is pollution from agricultural lands, which were exempted from the Act, but which remain major contributors of algae-feeding nutrients from fertilizer and the large-scale livestock feeding operations that have proliferated in recent years. While these challenges have been on the rise, resources to address them, such as federal and state funding, have not kept up and are likely to be on the decline for the foreseeable future.

GLISTEN faculty, students, and their community-based environmental service-learning partners have been addressing these persistent challenges in a variety of ways. Undergraduates from Defiance College, Saginaw Valley State University, Delta College, Calvin College, and Northland College have been monitoring the water quality of Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior tributaries to help develop and implement watershed stewardship plans. Others at Case Western Reserve University have gathered data used to develop a management plan for a degraded wetland that filters water entering a tributary of Lake Erie. Still others at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Indiana University Northwest, Ivy Tech Community College, Valparaiso University, and the University of Wisconsin Superior have helped replace invasive plant species with native ones more suited to optimal wetland and shoreline habitats in the Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior watersheds.

Through these activities, students from GLISTEN-affiliated institutions have helped local communities meet provisions of the Clean Water Act while enhancing their own learning of key science and engineering concepts in real-world contexts off-campus. As one community partner put it, the students "were very helpful in providing monitoring and mapping information for...implementing its monitoring criteria in the Illicit Discharge Elimination Program," and saved "a significant amount of money that could be used in other regulatory compliance areas."

The EPA-funded GLISTEN project has demonstrated that campus/community academic service-learning partnerships have a critical role to play in helping local communities meet the standards of the Clean Water Act: waterways that are safe sources of water for drinking and recreation, and support healthy and sustainable habitats for a great diversity of species.

Readers interested in more information on the GLISTEN project and Great Lakes ecosystem stewardship may contact Glenn at glenn.odenbrett@ncsce,net or Joseph Koonce, Co-director of the SENCER Center for Innovation – Great Lakes at Further information on the EPA's Water Quality Standards Academy is available here.