Watch the Androscoggin River today as it flows down from the Great Falls at Lewiston-Auburn and it seems scarcely believable it was once little more than an open sewer, full of toxic chemicals, a channel for every throwaway thing that could be swept to the sea.

Half a century ago, state fisheries biologist Dick Anderson got the “revolting task” of surveying the reeking waters between Bethel and Brunswick to see whether any game fish remained.

With the exception of a few reasonably pristine tributaries, he said he found only “billows of foam floating here and there” and pipes pouring foul gunk into the water. He didn’t find fish, but he learned that ducks and muskrats love sewage.

Anderson said he could tell the color of tissue paper one paper mill in Mechanic Falls was pumping out each day because the river beside it would take on the same shade from the excess dye. One slaughterhouse would flush all of its waste into the river at the end of each working day, he said.

It was so bad that the Androscoggin — and the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers as well — were cited by the growing environmental movement in the 1960s as among the 10 most polluted waterways in the country. Some said the Androscoggin was the most polluted river in America.

That all changed when U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, who grew up in Rumford and knew the river’s stench intimately, spearheaded passage of the Clean Water Act 45 years ago, building his case to stop the pollution he’d witnessed on the work of people such as Anderson who gathered the facts to undergird his argument.

Eleven-year-old Suzanne Clune, who lived on the banks of the Little Androscoggin River in Poland, didn’t need experts to know what she could find right outside her door.

Late in the summer of 1970, she picked up a blue pen and a sheet of yellow, lined paper and, with a penmanship few can muster today, wrote a letter to Muskie.

Clune told the senator that in days long past, deer could see their reflection as they drank from clear water and chokecherry blossoms along its banks “filled the air with the sweetest smell on earth.”

An excerpt from a 1970 letter to U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie from Suzanne Clune of Poland. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“Now in any season you can smell the most sickening smell on earth,” Clune wrote, with frogs “gasping for air” and fish “floating down the river dead.”

“I am sick of the river like this. Please do something about it,” Clune urged the powerful Democratic senator, two years after he served as an unsuccessful vice presidential nominee. She signed the plea as “one who loves Maine.”

Clune’s mother, Barbara, said recently her daughter, whose letter wound up in the Edmund S. Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library at Bates College, wasn’t exaggerating.

The river “was awful,” she said. “It was terrible, with crap all over it.”

Muskie wrote back to Clune, in another letter preserved in the archives at Bates, that he had “long been concerned over the pollution of the Androscoggin River” and was pushing to provide funds to states to pay for controls that would limit it.

Clune, now a California resident whose last name is Davies, said she still recalls the “slime green” water she saw on the bend in the river where she lived. She remembered seeing a bobcat on a log there once, looking at the nasty surface in a way that left her sad.

Davies said that it’s surprising to learn so many years later that her letter to Muskie may have played a small role in the passage of something as important as the Clean Water Act.

“I’m kind of touched by it, honestly, to realize that he saved that letter” and that in a little way she was part of an environmental movement that transformed America.

Whether or not Clune’s letter made a mark on Muskie, the senator soon played a crucial role in pressing Congress to adopt the Clean Water Act, a key piece of environmental legislation credited with reversing more than a century of treating the nation’s streams and lakes as little more than open sewers.

Adopted on Oct. 18, 1972, after Congress easily overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto, the landmark law barred any discharge into any navigable waters of pollutants from a point source, such as a factory pipe, without a permit. That meant people could no longer simply dump gunk into America’s rivers.

Regulators also required the installation of the best available pollution-control technologies before they would issue a permit and the government started an ongoing, multibillion-dollar effort to upgrade sewage treatment plants.

“You’ve got to spend money,” Muskie said at the time. “You’ve got to impose standards, and you’ve got to enforce them. There’s no easy way to do it.”

Lynne Lewis, left, of Bates College; Dick Anderson, former Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist; Natalie Lounsbury of River Rise Farm in Turner; Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine; and Lewiston-Auburn Metro Chamber of Commerce President Beckie Conrad discuss the value of clean water in Maine during a news conference on the bank of the Androscoggin River in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Lynne Lewis, an environmental economics professor at Bates College, said the billions spent to enforce the Clean Water Act delivered far more value than the cost to taxpayers, spurring economic activity along rivers, lakes and shoreline, pushing up waterfront real estate values and offering boundless recreational opportunities that wind up putting more dollars into government coffers.

The law “has renewed the river,” said Natalie Lounsbury, who has a farm in Turner beside it. She said environmentalists should work with farmers and land managers to do more to keep soil, nutrients and fertilizer out of the water.

The executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Lisa Pohlmann, warned during a news conference Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the Clean Water Act that President Donald Trump’s administration is working “quickly and stealthily” to pare back water quality regulations and the funding that undergirds the effort to improve America’s waterways.

“We can’t afford to go backwards on clean water protections,” she said.

For a new generation, the reality of the Androscoggin isn’t sewage and stench. The river now is something to embrace for recreation and beauty, a place to spur economic development and lure residents and tourists.

Beckie Conrad, president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said she recently visited a high school history class where the river’s dirty, stinky past came up. Some of the young men there shrugged in response.

“‘Who cares?’ they said. They love the river,” Conrad said.

Davies said she walked along the river during a visit back to Maine this past summer, noting the “huge difference” from the way it looked when she was young, begging a senator for help.

“It’s much cleaner. It’s like real water. It’s moving,” she said.

As he scanned the river from a Lewiston park, Anderson said its transformation from the revolting waterway of his younger days is hard to believe. He also took pride in his role in making it happen.

“We inherited this mess, this disgusting mess, from the people before us and we worked our butts off” to improve it, Anderson said. “This generation, the people who live here now, have cleaned it up.”

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