The Clean Water Act turns fifty.

One of my first professional gigs was digitizing the state’s paper fish kill records over holiday break. They stretched back into the 30’s and took me on a ride chronicling all sorts of environmental horrors- fish kills from slaughterhouse releases, from machine shop releases, from every manner of mystery chemical dumped in barrels leaking into roadside ditches. Mine tailings leaching acid and heavy metals. The City of Saint Louis ground their garbage and dumped it in the Mississippi River weekly, not knowing, or not caring, about the rafts of dead fish and mussels downstream.

There was a fish kill caused by milk, one of the most benign compounds I could imagine.

You could tell from the documents and dispatches when the Clean Water Act arrived- fewer instances of institutional, industrial, point-source pollution. Small communities working to manage sewage effluent. Fish kills and pollution didn’t end- the Clean Water Act was never a panacea- but we learned as a society to do better.

We’re still learning.

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