Photo Slideshow: Vintage Collection, Before Clean Water Act

A sampling of 81,000 images — taken by more than 100 photographers and sponsored by the young EPA — to document the state of the nation’s environment in the 1970s.

The environmental movement in the United States came of age in the 1970s. The U.S. Congress had just created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and legislators had passed or were considering landmark laws concerning water quality, air pollution, and endangered species.

As a visual testimony to the state of the nation’s environment — of its waters, forests, and fields, as well as the social web in its cities and towns — the young EPA sponsored Project Documerica. More than 100 photographers contributed at least 81,000 images to the collection.

“We are working toward a new environmental ethic in this decade which will bring profound change in how we live, and in how we provide for future generations,” said William Ruckelshaus, head of the EPA in 1971 when the project began. “It is important that we document that change so future generations will understand our successes and our failures.”

Today, some 15,000 of those images are available online from the National Archives. The gallery below is a window to a time when water pollution was pervasive and many rivers were lifeless. Click the images to enlarge in a slideshow.

Ohio River, oil spill, rivers, pollution, Project Documerica, Crucible Steel plant, Beaver County, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Water Act, Pittsburgh, PennsylvaniaClean Water Act, Environmental Protection Agency, industrial pollution, rivers, Monongahela River, Project Documerica, EPA, United States Steel Corporation, Braddock, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh
Clean Water Act, rivers, pollution, Project Documerica, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, Androscoggin River, Lewiston, MaineFox River, algae, Wisconsin, Clean Water Act, pollution, rivers, Project Documerica, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency
Clean Water Act, pollution, garbage, Snohomish River, rivers, Project Documerica, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, Everett, WashingtonClean Water Act, rivers, pollution, Project Documerica, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, Fitchburg Paper Company, Paper mill pollution
Clean Water Act, Buffalo River, pollution, Lake Erie, Project Documerica, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, Buffalo, New York, Great LakesClean Water Act, rivers, pollution, Kansas River, Project Documerica, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, Lawrence, dumping ground, trash dump
Potomac River, Clean Water Act, pollution, sewage, rivers, Washington D.C. Project Documerica, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, Georgetown Gap, raw sewage, Watergate complex, Anacostia River, pollution, Clean Water Act, rivers, silt, Project Documerica, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, Washington D.C.
Clean Water Act, pollution, rivers, Project Documerica, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, Pittsburgh Glass Company, drainage ditchMississippi River, garbage, Clean Water Act, pollution, Project Documerica, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, abandoned cars, sunken cars

This slideshow is part of a series marking the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. Click here to read Part I: Cities Fall In Love With Rivers Again by Circle of Blue’s Seattle reporter, Brett Walton. Click here to read Part II: A Harvest of Clean Water Exemptions on the Farm by Circle of Blue’s Georgia-based reporter, Codi Yeager-Kozacek.

Author: Allison Voglesong   is an editorial intern for Circle of Blue based out of Traverse City, Michigan. She holds a BA in International Relations from Michigan State University's James Madison College. Her interests include water pricing, environmental economics and policy, and conflict mediation.

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