A Look Back in Honor of National Water Quality Month

Willamette River before the Clean Water Act

Willamette River, OR before the Clean Water Act | Oregon State University Archives

I’ve never known a time without a Clean Water Act in the United States.

This became particularly clear to me after watching footage from Oregon State University’s archives of the Willamette River in the 1930s and 1940. While I’ve seen water pollution and spend a lot of my time working on less visible forms of water pollution (like stormwater runoff), it still shocked me how visibly polluted the Willamette was not that long ago.

In the film footage, scientists started at Springfield, OR and worked their way downstream conducting basic water quality tests along the way. One simple test examined how long fish could survive in the water by placing them in a small net in the river. Upstream, all of the fish passed the 20 minute mark. Further downstream, however, the fish started dying after only a few minutes.

August is National Water Quality Month, and as many of us will spend at least some time in, on, or around the water, it’s a good opportunity to remember how far we’ve come and the challenges that still lie ahead.

With water pollution, there are no easy answers or quick fixes. Since its inception in 1972, the Clean Water Act has done a pretty good job at managing point source pollution, essentially the pollution that enters river through pipes. Thanks to the Act, it’s much less likely that you would see a river today in the United States that looks like the Willamette in this video.

However, while the pollution may be less visible, it is in some ways much more complex. Today’s challenge for the Willamette and rivers across the country most often comes in the form of non-point source pollution, or polluted runoff, which becomes a point source discharge in our developed areas. Essentially, this is water that runs off the land, picks up pollutants, and flows into rivers, lakes and streams. Not only is this pollution harder to control and manage, it also makes it more challenging to convey the extent of the problem because it is more difficult to see.

Here at American Rivers, we’re working for green infrastructure solutions to better manage polluted runoff that protect clean water and provide a number of other benefits to communities, from reduced energy costs to improved public health.

Watch this video of pollution in the Willamette River before the Clean Water Act: