|1969 Cuyahoga River fire|
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Why Care about Burning Rivers? by Moderator John Hartig
Discussion Topic: Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers That Caught Fire
Public outcry over water pollution in these rivers and Lake Erie was voiced in public hearings convened by the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration in the late 1960s. This public outcry clearly was a catalyst for the establishment of the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1972 U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (renewed in 1978).
I recently got some feedback from a businessperson who questioned why I would ever want to write or talk about rivers that burned. This person felt that by writing and speaking about Burning Rivers I was somehow continuing the perception that these rivers are merely polluted rivers in the Rust Belt. I couldn’t disagree more.
I think it is important to remember that at one or more times in our history rivers actually caught on fire because of substantial oil pollution. This may seem incredible to us now, but it occurred and we need to remember why and how it happened so that we can make sure that it doesn’t happen again. It is indeed amazing to think that the Buffalo, Cuyahoga, Rouge, and Chicago rivers were four of the most polluted rivers in North America. Oil pollution of the Buffalo and Rouge rivers is now credited with being a catalyst for the industrial pollution control programs in New York and Michigan, respectively. Chicago River fires became a minor local tourist attraction. But it was the June 22, 1969 Cuyahoga River fire that captured national attention because it occurred right when there was growing national recognition of environmental pollution and right when the national media began to cover the environment as a serious issue. The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire went on to become the “poster child” of the environmental movement and was a catalyst for change because it was the right event at the right time. It literally helped awaken the nation to widespread environmental degradation.
There is no doubt that these historical accounts of river fires document peak water pollution and peak societal indifference to it. Equally important, though, is the remarkable environmental progress since these pollution-induced river fires. For example, in 1968 when the Buffalo River caught on fire there were no fish in the lower river. Today, you can find 25-30 species of fish, a substantially improved macrobenthic invertebrate community, and peregrine falcons reproducing in downtown Buffalo. In 1969 when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire there were few if any fish in the lower river. Today, you can find 70 species of fish, pollution sensitive macrobenthic invertebrates, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and osprey. In 1969 when the Rouge River caught on fire even pollution tolerant carp were dying in the lower river because of oxygen depletion. Today, oxygen conditions have improved, fish are returning, and peregrine falcons and bank swallows have returned. In the late 1800s and early 1900s when the Chicago River caught on fire people feared the river because of waterborne disease epidemics and were disgusted because of slaughterhouse waste and raw sewage. Today, waterborne disease epidemics have been eliminated, river oxygen conditions have improved, and you can find 70 species of fish and watch peregrine falcons. Again, it is important to recognize that these river fires provide important benchmarks that document the severity of pollution at the height of industrial and societal indifference, and help document the substantial progress achieved to date.
Today, educators talk about measuring student achievement in two basic ways: against a numerical standard like 60%, 70%, 80%, or 90%; and against a starting benchmark to be able to measure how far they have come. These educators would clearly be pleased with how far these four rivers have come relative to where they started. This not only gives much to be proud of for the denizens of these four metropolitan areas, but it gives four shining examples of urban river revival that serve as beacons of hope throughout the world.
We also must remember that today all young people were born after these river fires occurred. Many may not even know that, at one time, rivers caught on fire. This generation needs to know the story of Burning Rivers and the river revival underway. Clearly, more needs to be done to fully realize long-term goals of restoring the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of these aquatic ecosystems. However, the progress achieved to date, the informed, engaged, and vocal stakeholders and nongovernmental organizations involved, the broad-based desire to create a sense of place along these rivers and in these watersheds, the recognition that these river ecosystems are indeed home to watershed residents (and what we do to these river ecosystems, we indeed do to ourselves), and the community pride that has been developed in these rivers bodes well for further revival. And yes this gives hope! Our challenge is to make sure that the environmental hope these four river revival stories gives is not dimmed and that these rivers continue to improve through watershed stewardship toward our long-term need of sustainable development.
What do you think?
[Editor: Please click on Comments link to share your thoughts and ideas and ask John a question or two.]