LEWISTON — Alan Haley remembers when everything from henhouse waste to trash was dumped into Maine’s rivers.

“Somehow it just magically disappeared – until there was just too much of it,” Haley, the state’s first whitewater rafting guide, said.

Today, due to the federal Clean Water Act, Maine’s rivers are no longer the dumping grounds for waste.

On Thursday, roughly 200 people gathered on the banks of the Androscoggin River at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act. There, 100 professionals and volunteers across the state were recognized as “Clean Water Champions” for their efforts to protect Maine’s waters.

In the most powerful speech of the event, Haley recalled the words of former state legislator Ezra Briggs of Caribou.

Gov. Janet Mills speaks Thursday on the history of the federal Clean Water Act at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. Roughly 200 people gathered to celebrate 50 years since the landmark law was passed. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“In this planet, we don’t have a shortage of water,” Haley said. “We’ve got as much water today on the planet as we had when Columbus bumped into North America. We’ve got as much water as when Jesus walked on the Galilee. But what we don’t have is clean water.”


Nobody owned the rivers of Maine, so no one took care of them, he said.

“We got to remember that even though many of us hate government regulations, and even though we hate to be tied down, they are the ones that represent the true owners of this water,” Haley said. “It is the people of the state of Maine, and it is through our government and through things like the Clean Water Act that someone, something can stand up for our waters and say, ‘I’m here to protect them.'”

Pat Webber speaks Thursday on the history of the federal Clean Water Act at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston to celebrate 50 years since its passage. Webber is the director of the Edmund Muskie Archives at Bates College. The landmark law is thanks to the work of the U.S. senator from Rumford. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Jeff Reardon, Trout Unlimited Maine Brook Trout project director, recalled his grandfather, a 1943 Bates College graduate, used to tell stories about the Bates football team gathering on the shores of the Androscoggin River for pep rallies and lighting the river on fire. 

Jeff Dennis, a biologist entering his 51st year working for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, remembers dodging car-sized rafts of fat and hair set adrift by the Hartland tannery as he collected insect samples from the West Branch of the Sebasticook River decades ago.

And as a child in the 1950s, Scott Williams remembers when people dumped trash into Thompson Lake, uncaring of the environmental consequences. Back then, there were no real laws to stop it.

“Change doesn’t take place unless there’s a change in perception,” he said.


At Thursday’s celebration, Reardon, Dennis and Williams were all recognized by the Natural Resources Council of Maine as Clean Water Champions.

Fifty years after Congress overrode then-President Richard Nixon’s veto to pass Edmund Muskie’s Clean Water Act, Maine’s waters are undeniably cleaner than they once were.

Make no mistake, there is still work to be done. Emerging contaminants like PFAS, climate change and population growth are just some of the threats Maine’s waters face.

“(Muskie) taught us that we must preserve that progress with our whole hearts,” Gov. Janet Mills said. “Today on the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, we recommit to protecting our lakes, streams, rivers and oceans from pollution. We recommit to preserving our clean water, to protecting public health and to safeguarding this precious state of Maine.”

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