2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic ‘last burning’ of the Cuyahoga River on June 22, 1969. With at least a dozen documented fires on record, sadly, the Cuyahoga is not the only U.S. river to burn. The Buffalo River (Buffalo, NY), the Schuylkill River (Philadelphia, PA) and the Rouge River (Detroit, MI) also share the Cuyahoga’s smoldering history of environmental degradation. Industrial discharges of chemical and petroleum-based wastes into these rivers resulted in oil slicks that provided the fuel that would allow these rivers to ‘burn’.
The movement toward environmental responsibility gained momentum when an August 1969 issue of Time Magazine included an article about the toxic condition of the Cuyahoga River, citing that it is a ‘river that oozes rather than flows’. Although no photos of the 1969 burning on the Cuyahoga River are known to exist, Time included photos of an earlier (1952) fire on the river. Additional photos captured the devastation of this ecosystem and the Cuyahoga River unexpectedly became the catalyst for legislative change that, in-part, lead to the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA).
This federal legislation has certainly resulted in cleaner water and rivers that are no longer ignitable throughout the U.S.! The Cuyahoga River, which was once the symbol of America’s neglect of their natural resources, has bounced back in many ways. If we have learned anything from the progress we have made it is that the first step in cleaning up a river is reducing or eliminating the pollution at its source. The CWA, in conjuncture with the EPA’s NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit process, has made great progress in identifying and eliminating industrial and municipal waste polluters. Under the CWA this type of pollution is referred to as ‘point source’ pollution since the generated waste can be tracked back to a single source.
More Work is Needed
Before we dust off our hands and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, we should keep in mind that our work is not finished. The EPA estimates that about half of our rivers and streams are ‘impaired waters’, in many cases not clean enough for fishing and swimming. How can this be? Unfortunately, point source pollution is not the only threat to the health of our rivers. Referred to as non-point source pollution, this other type of water pollution is generated from many sources and is not nearly as easy to identify, quantify and prevent. Non-point source waste is collected from land surfaces and is moved to ditches and streams when it rains. Storm water washes across the land picking up many types of contaminants along the way. Non-point source pollution is collected from every roof, yard, park, road, farm, school, church, parking lot and construction site. Just think about all of the things we leave on the surface of the ground that make their way into our ditches and streams with every rain event! Our personal habits and the decisions we make every day have an impact on our rivers and lakes. These impacts include lawn fertilizer, pet waste, livestock manure, agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, septic waste from improperly functioning systems, soil erosion from various practices that disturb the soil such as over-tilling, land clearing, poor timbering harvests, construction, and removing vegetation along streambanks. Consider the addition of automotive fluids and gasoline leaking onto parking lots and roads, and de-icing salts applied to roads and sidewalks that are also carried along waterways during spring thaws. And don’t forget about the food and beverage waste or cigarette butts that are thrown into roadside ditches from car windows. All of these things end up in our streams and rivers.
As if all of that is not enough, a multitude of plastic wastes also enter our freshwater systems in a number of ways, including litter. Recent research in the Great Lakes has found an alarming amount of microscopic plastic in every Great Lake, with lakes Erie and Ontario having the highest concentrations. Additional research has confirmed that this plastic has made its way into the food chain and we are now, in essence, consuming our waste! Local organizations concerned about plastic pollution are partnering with us to provide an informational community program this June titled, ‘Perils of Plastic Pollution’. (See page 5 for more details)
We are very privileged to live in an area with an abundance of fresh water, and with that privilege comes an obligation to protect and conserve this natural resource for future generations. Healing our waters cannot simply be managed by a government agency, and therefore falls on each of us and our willingness to do our part. We are all non-point source polluters and we need to learn how to eliminate or reduce the pollution we are adding to our public waters. Simple changes in our daily lives can have a positive effect. We can, should, and must do better.
Where to Start
Let us help! The Portage Soil & Water Conservation District is staffed with resource professionals that can provide assistance in helping you learn how to better manage your property to reduce water pollution and soil loss. We also offer many educational workshops and field day events throughout the year that provide an opportunity for participants to interact with crop producers, grower collaboratives, field experts, conservation & wildlife managers, university researchers and extension staff. Our website also provides useful information and links to helpful resources.
Additionally, there are many local river-themed programs being planned for this coming spring and early summer that will provide excellent opportunities to learn more about the history and the current condition of our local fresh water systems. See page 5 for the partial listing of programming commemorating the Cuyahoga River’s 50th Anniversary of environmental progress. Come join us in celebrating this invaluable resource that we have in our back yard!
For More Information on Upcoming River Celebration Events or to Learn More About The Burning of the River