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How to resurrect a river

Cleveland firefighters aboard a fire boat extinguish hot spots on a railroad bridge torched by burning fluids and debris on the Cuyahoga River in 1969, in Cleveland. Mitchell Zaremba/The Plain Dealer via APAP/The Plain Dealer via AP

The year 1969 was so studded with big moments — moonshot, Stonewall, Woodstock — that it’s easy to overlook what was, in hindsight, a seminal event in the environmental movement. Fifty years ago this summer, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, so befouled by oily industrial waste that not even leeches could live in it, literally burst into flames.

Although it wasn’t the first fire on the Cuyahoga, or the biggest, the 1969 blaze rode the zeitgeist of a nation coming to grips with pollution. Time magazine published an article on America’s despoiled rivers, illustrated with a dramatic photograph from a 1952 Cuyahoga fire. The satirist and musician Randy Newman immortalized the blaze in song: “The Cuyahoga River goes smokin’ through my dreams.” The fire is even credited in part with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency a year later by that known radical tree-hugger, Richard Nixon.


Today the Cuyahoga is clean enough that fish caught in it are safe to eat, if only once or twice a month. You still wouldn’t want to swim in the river’s industrial channel, but it’s certainly clean enough for hip restaurants and craft breweries to line its banks, and for community celebrations of the 50th anniversary, with cheeky events like a torchlight boat parade and a “blazing paddles” kayak race.

The first step in getting the Cuyahoga out of its filthy depths was simply to stop degrading the waters. Voters passed a $100 million bond issue to repair aging sewer pipes. A local hero named Frank Samsel built a 54-foot tugboat and got to work vacuuming up acres of floating muck and debris. Four artificial dams were demolished, bringing oxygen back to the river.

The Cuyahoga is not the only River Lazarus to come back from the dead. Other US waterways — the Potomac, the Missouri, our own River Charles — have recovered from industrial pollution enough to be fishable and swimmable most of the time. A message runs through it: If mankind stops heaping abuse on the planet, in time it will heal.


Along the Charles, cleanup efforts have focused on twin sources of contamination: waste from sewer pipe overflows and street runoff during heavy rains. In 1988, the EPA reported that 150 million gallons of untreated sewage poured into the Charles from illicit sewer hookups, leaky pipes, and outdated systems that combine sewage and rainwater. The EPA’s first water quality report card, in 1995, gave the Charles a D. Thanks to new federal and state mandates, legal pressure from environmental groups, and benefits from the Boston Harbor cleanup, combined sewer overflows have been reduced by well over 90 percent. But there are still eight or nine overflow locations that need attention.

Stormwater runoff, meanwhile, carries fertilizer, gasoline, trash, and toxins into the river, especially where natural ground filtration has been paved over with hardscape. The phosphorus in fertilizers feeds algae blooms that can spawn Cyanobacteria, harmful to people and pets. You have to wonder why developers are still allowed to build impermeable parking lots or plazas near vulnerable water sources. Indeed, new EPA permits called MS4s should nudge communities along the Charles toward greener infrastructure. Local officials need to realize the cost benefit of preventing storm runoff rather than paying for mitigation.


Lately the Charles has suffered some setbacks: It dropped a grade in its EPA report card, from A- to B, in 2018, mostly due to storm-related overflows. Last month, two dates for the public swim sponsored by the Charles River Conservancy were canceled because of water quality concerns after heavy rains. “It was a reminder that we can’t be complacent,” said Laura Jasinski,the conservancy’s director.

Climate change is only expected to bring more rain and more intense storms to the Northeast; 2018 was the wettest year on record in Massachusetts. So the focus needs to be on reducing the sources of contamination, helping local governments comply with new requirements better and faster, and designing storage solutions to prevent overflows. The Charles River Watershed Association, for one, can help municipalities go green.

In his first State of the Union address, Nixon asked what he called “the great question of the ’70s: Shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?” A half-century later, it’s still the great question. Only we, the people, have the answer.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.