Extreme Makeovers: Clean Water Edition

Lauren Kuehne, a research scientist in the Freshwater Ecology and Conservation Lab at the University of Washington, shares this Frontiers Focus on the 1972 Clean Water Act and a review of progress and trends in freshwater assessments since the passage of this groundbreaking law, from the May 2017 issue of ESA Frontiers.

Cuyahoga River Fire

The Cuyahoga River on fire in 1952. The river caught fire multiple times in the 20th century due to pollution; the last time – in 1969 – helped spur the set of amendments known as the 1972 Clean Water Act. Credit: The Cleveland Press Collection via The Cleveland Memory Project, Michael Schwartz Library

Stories of transformations are fascinating – especially about deserving people who just want a shot at a better quality of life. Many people have watched, or at least know of, the reality TV show Extreme Makeover, in which ordinary people receive dramatic Hollywood interventions. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was even more popular.

Which is why the timing might be right for a new series, Extreme Makeover: Clean Water Edition, where each episode focuses on the positive transformations of US lakes and rivers since passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

The first episode would certainly be the story of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, a river that caught fire multiple times in the 20th century. The last fire, in 1969, ultimately helped push passage of the Clean Water Act three years later. Today, the Cuyahoga River keeps meeting benchmarks for clean water, including the recent return of pollution-sensitive sport fish like walleye.

From the Flats West Bank

Today, the Cuyahoga River continues to improve in water quality benchmarks, including return of valuable sportfish. Credit: Christina Spicuzza available for use with attribution under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Similar radical transformations have taken place across the country in places like Lake Washington, by Seattle, Wa., Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, La., and the Mississippi River near Twin Cities, Mn. These extreme makeovers, which are well within memory, are examples of where the Clean Water Act has provided regulatory mechanisms and framework to meet standards not only for water quality but also fishing and swimming.

In the May issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, my co-authors and I review the 40+ years of progress and trends in how the condition of our lakes, streams, rivers, and wetlands have been assessed since passage of the Clean Water Act. Evaluating the progress related to this game-changing environmental legislation and looking to the future to keep up with water quality improvements and conservation is especially timely given the current administration’s focus on review and rollback on EPA regulations.

Extreme Makeover: Clean Water Edition has all the elements of a great series: despair, struggle, and the chance for a better future. It’s up to all of us to decide where that future is going.


Lauren M Kuehne, Julian D Olden Angela L. Strecker, Joshua J Lawler, David M Theobald (2017) Past, present, and future of ecological integrity assessment for fresh waters. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 15(4): 197-205, doi: 10.1002/fee.1483

Further reading:

Author: Frontiers Focus

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