The Clean Water Act and the Lake Champlain Basin

Adapted from the Clean Water Act traveling interpretive exhibit, developed in partnership with the Lake Champlain Maritime Musesum

Industrialization in the 1800s brought economic growth and an improved quality of life to the United States, but it also brought increased threats to the nation’s lakes and rivers, including those in the Lake Champlain Basin. Clean water efforts gained attention as these threats directly affected the lives of people living in the region

In 1905, following a series of complaints from residents about the discharge of waste into Lake Champlain from mills, the Department of the Interior commissioned a report on pollution in the lake. The report detailed concerns about the declining water quality and issued a dire warning to Burlington residents. Without any sewage treatment plants, they discharged their raw waste directly into the lake. As the investigator bluntly stated, the residents of Burlington were “drinking from their own cesspool.”

The Cuyahoga River fires and other devastating disasters in the mid-20th century shined an even greater light on the need to protect the nation’s environment. Growing public anxiety about air and water pollution nationally led President Richard Nixon to propose the creation of a new executive agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Approved in 1970, the EPA consolidated the government’s environmental oversight under one authority and streamlined policies aimed at protecting the environment.

In the same year, Jim Jeffords, then Vermont Attorney General and future Senator, spearheaded legal efforts against the International Paper Company (IPC), whose Ticonderoga Creek paper plant had been a significant source of pollution in Lake Champlain since the late 1800s. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and ended in a settlement. IPC paid $750,000 and Vermont used the money to create a fund to monitor the environmental practices of IPC’s new paper mill.

Concerns about water quality continued to grow after the creation of the EPA. In 1972, a bipartisan group of congressmen introduced amendments to the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act that gave the EPA expanded control over water quality. The amendments would allow the EPA to regulate and implement pollution control programs for waterways, set water quality standards, fund sewage treatment plants, and make it illegal to discharge any pollutants into waterways without permission. These amendments became the Clean Water Act, signed into law on October 18, 1972.

In 1990, Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Jim Jeffords and New York Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alfonse D’Amato introduced the Lake Champlain Special Designation Act as another amendment to the Clean Water Act. The legislation recognized Lake Champlain as a resource of national significance. Signed into law on November 5, 1990, the Act established the Lake Champlain Basin Program, with the goal of bringing together people with diverse interests in the Lake to create a comprehensive pollution prevention, control, and restoration plan for protecting the future of the Lake Champlain Basin.

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