LEWISTON – On one wall of the second floor lecture hall at the Muskie Archives at Bates College is an editorial cartoon that appeared in the now-defunct Providence Evening Bulletin on Nov. 15, 1971.

The cartoon depicts Maine Sen. Edmund S. Muskie as a bartender ready to pour from a bottle labeled “100 proof Clean Water Bill.”

Across the bar stands then President Richard M. Nixon holding a glass filled with ice.

The caption reads “I like it on the rocks.”

The cartoon alludes to Nixon’s attempts to weaken what was a harbinger of a national environmental movement birthed in the early 1970s.

Said Michael Lord, “The cleanup of the Androscoggin River was the role model for Ed Muskie’s Clean Water Act of 1972.”

Muskie, who grew up in Rumford, knew firsthand of the fouled waterway, once considered one of the nation’s 10 worst polluted rivers.

And, said Lord, executive secretary of the Androscoggin Historical Society, Muskie also knew of the vast improvements made to the river between the early 1940s and the late 1960s.

Lord was one of a trio of panelists speaking Thursday afternoon in the hall honoring Muskie. Despite continuing pollution problems, the Androscoggin River, they agreed, is likely cleaner today than it has been in 100 years.

That’s not to say it’s perfect.

Paper mills in Berlin, N.H., Rumford and Jay continue to discharge materials from the papermaking process into the river.

A dam that creates Gulf Island Pond holds back water that lacks enough oxygen in places to support fish or other life. The same dam allows the still waters to heat to levels that would kill fish if they survive.

Lewiston and Auburn add to the fouling, allowing thousands of gallons of untreated human waste to flow toward the sea whenever rains overwhelm storm drains not yet divorced from the wastewater system.

Barry Mower, a biologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection, and Bobby Van Riper, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, joined Lord on the panel.

They both said that the river without the dam, or without the mills, would be far cleaner than it is. Still, they noted, it indeed does support fisheries. Even the Gulf Island impoundment, dead in places, remains home in other places to a warm-water fishery that boast trophy-size largemouth and smallmouth bass, northern pike and a host of other fish from dace to suckers, noted Van Riper.

Mower put it this way: “It may not be great, but the river has come a long way, really.”

And Mower said continuing talks with the paper mills and Florida Power and Light, which owns the Gulf Island dam, will produce additional improvements in water quality. With similar improvements mandated by the federal government and embraced by the cities of Lewiston and Auburn, within a decade there’ll be no more human waste floating with the current toward Durham and Lisbon.

Their appearance at the Muskie Archives was orchestrated by the Bates Environmental Coalition, the college’s environmental studies program and its department of geology.

It coincides with legislative debate over a bill filed by Rep. Elaine Makas, D-Lewiston, that would require the river to meet Maine’s minimum standards for Class C rivers.

From the New Hampshire line to just above Rumford, the river is rated Class B – drinkable. From Rumford to Merrymeeting Bay it’s listed as Class C – suitable for general recreation purposes, including swimming and fishing – but fails to meet those standards in parts of Gulf Island Pond and a section below the Twin Cities.

Improving those sections, the panelist said, is achievable.

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