Colby Commemorates 50 Years of Clean Water

Maine’s rivers used to be among the country’s most polluted. The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, changed everything.

The Kennebec River runs freely past the site of the former Edwards Dam.
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Gabe Souza
November 7, 2022

Nowadays, the Kennebec River is notable for sturgeon leaping up from the surface of the water and American bald eagles swooping down low. On summer days, whitewater rafters whoop their way down the Kennebec River Gorge, and fishermen cast their lines hoping for nibbles from trout, salmon, and smallmouth bass.  

But 50 years ago, it was a very different scene. At that time the Kennebec, along with most other Maine rivers, was a stinking, polluted waterway—a longtime dumping ground for raw municipal sewage, paper-mill chemical effluent, and garbage. The industrial waste killed fish and caused stench and fumes that peeled paint off buildings, woke up sleeping babies, and made people sick. 

The extraordinary transformation happened thanks to the Clean Water Act, which was signed into law in October 1972. 

Last week, Colby hosted the program 50 Years of the Clean Water Act in Maine, a conversation with Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Richard Judd, an environmental history professor emeritus from the University of Maine. The event was introduced by Philip Nyhus, professor of environmental studies, and attended by many Colby students, who eagerly participated in the question-and-answer period. 

Nyhus emphasized the state’s role in the environmental movement, adding that the Clean Water Act was passed thanks, in large part, to U.S. Senator Ed Muskie of Maine. 

“Maine itself is an amazing place to reflect on the past, present, and future of environmental policy,” Nyhus said. “Henry David Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, and many others came [here], were inspired, and ended up changing the country and, indeed, the world.”

A heron streaks across the surface of the Kennebec River in Augusta, near where the Edwards Dam used to stop up the river. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

According to Judd, the regulatory framework of the 1970s came about because of a nascent civic environmental movement that happened in the 1950s. During that time, groundwork was laid that ultimately allowed Mainers to challenge industry and help the environment. 

That wasn’t easy to do. For most of the 20th century, the state had a national reputation as a “paper plantation,” a colony run by paper companies, textile mills, and hydropower corporations, he said. In the first half of the century, the 37 pulp and paper mills and 80 textile mills spewed huge quantities of waste into the rivers, with around 100 million gallons of waste a day flowing into the Androscoggin River alone. 

By the 1950s, ordinary Mainers were getting fed up. In Lewiston, businessmen got together and formed “indignation meetings” and “action clubs.” They petitioned the legislature, talked to the governor, wrote editorials, and began the process of seeking remediation. 

“Those are the first real environmental organizations, you might say, in this state,” Judd said. 

At first, the arguments to clean the rivers were rooted in economics. But as time passed, the effort broadened, with other groups getting involved in the conversation around water quality. Those included local fish and game clubs, garden clubs, and parent-teacher organizations. 

“Ordinary people showed up at these meetings tirelessly to promote the idea of environmental legislation,” Judd said. 

Water is Maine’s ‘brand identity’

Maine has 6,000 lakes, 31,000 miles of rivers and streams, and 3,500 miles of coastline, and the quality of those waters is part of the state’s brand identity, Didisheim said. Water provides important recreation opportunities and is critical to many businesses and industries, including the state’s emerging role as a mecca for craft beer.

These days, many water-quality indicators are positive, he said. Thanks to dam removals and water cleanup, Atlantic salmon are making it all the way to the lower falls of Gulf Hagas, 150 miles inland from the ocean. And people gather along the Kennebec in Augusta and Hallowell “just to watch sturgeon leaping, which is really an extraordinary thing given how dead our rivers were,” Didisheim said. 

Remnants of the Edwards Dam sit on the banks of the Kennebec River in Augusta. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

His group continues to advocate for strong environmental policies and for the removal of some of the 1,000 dams that remain on Maine rivers.

Maine does face water-quality challenges, including PFAS, a chemical contaminant that has been found in drinking and surface water; climate change, which is causing lake temperatures to rise; and waterfront-development pressures, which have led to increased nutrient runoff to lakes. There’s also political pressure, he said, including a case currently before the Supreme Court that could undermine federal regulatory authority. 

Didisheim hopes that the Clean Water Act, and the can-do civil spirit in which it was conceived, will remain strong enough to continue mitigating these challenges.  

“It really is an incredible demonstration of the power of legislation propelled by advocacy and implemented through regulatory authorities to require the polluters to clean up their messes,” he said.