What would Muskie do?
No one who remembers when the Androscoggin River was essentially an open sewer so much so that it inspired Maine Sen. Ed Muskie to push Congress to enact the Clean Water Act in 1972 will argue the point that it is a much cleaner river now than it was even 10 or 15 years ago.
As significant as that improvement is, the Androscoggin is far from pristine which makes steady ongoing efforts to improve its water quality an essential requirement for eventually achieving that goal. The Clean Water Act, in fact, envisions steady progress being made in cleaning up all of our polluted rivers with a water quality classification upgrade being deemed "appropriate" where it is socially or ecologically desirable to do so, and when it's economically and technically feasible to achieve the higher standards within a reasonable time.
It's simple common sense. If clean water is our goal and there are ample ecological, economic and health reasons why that goal makes sense we must keep pushing toward it; otherwise we'll never get there.
Maine's Board of Environmental Protection would do well to remember Ed Muskie's passionate words urging passage of the Clean Water Act this Thursday, when its 10 volunteer citizens appointed by the governor take up proposed water quality reclassifications for a number of Maine's rivers and streams. The good news is that at least 17 rivers and streams have received recommendations from the Department of Environmental Protection that their water quality classifications be upgraded.
The bad news?
The portion of the Androscoggin River from below the Worumbo Dam in Lisbon Falls to Merrymeeting Bay is not among them notwithstanding a petition filed by Friends of Merrymeeting Bay concluding that its water quality monitoring for that stretch of water shows the river already meets a "Class B" standard and therefore deserves to be upgraded from its present "Class C" status.
DEP's Web site indicates it is not recommending an upgrade at this time, citing a "lack of information"; instead, it recommends that additional monitoring be done "to determine the likelihood of attaining Class B water quality."
One might expect that DEP's position is driven by concerns of municipalities along the river, who might wish that the lower Androscoggin's water quality classification remain at Class C to give them some "wiggle room" in meeting their particular sewage and stormwater discharge standards.
But that's not the case. Letters submitted to the BEP by Lewiston, Durham, Topsham and Brunswick uniformly support a reclassification of the lower Androscoggin from Class C to Class B. Ditto a letter from the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust and the original petition filed by Friends of Merrymeeting Bay.
Citing Lewiston taxpayers' investment of millions to clean up the river, Lewiston City Administrator James Bennett concludes that "reclassification will provide the river with increased protection against degradation in the future, which will enable its condition to continue to improve." Brunswick Town Manager Donald Gerrish, citing the unanimous vote of the Town Council in support of reclassification, adds that there is a "clear social and ecological benefit from a cleaner river."
Board of Environmental Protection members should heed these voices calling for a cleaner Androscoggin River. And if these are not enough, they might recall these words of Sen. Ed Muskie, spoken on the Senate floor 36 years ago: "Can we afford clean water? Can we afford rivers and lakes and streams and oceans which continue to make life possible on this planet? Can we afford life itself? These questions answer themselves."
Muskie's words carried the day as the Senate overturned President Nixon's veto of the Clean Water Act. We who live in the watershed of the Androscoggin and Kennebec Rivers not to mention, fish, eels, sturgeon, osprey,, eagles, turtles, herons and other wildlife are the beneficiaries of his advocacy.
But the job is not done. Far from it.
The BEP has an opportunity to do what's right for our river and all the creatures both great and small that live within it and along its shores. Upgrading the lower Androscoggin's water quality classification to Class B will keep us on the right course toward eventually achieving clean water in our beautiful river.