What Rivers Looked Like Before the EPA Regulated Water Pollution
Something happened today that made me realize how, as a society, we are losing sight of the things that caused us to regulate the environment 50 years ago. As a result, some bad history could repeat itself
After seeing yesterday’s post about the West Fork mouth bar, a reader named Suzanne Kite sent me a link to an article on BusinessInsider.com. Little did she know that – for me – it would be a free ride on an emotional roller coaster in the wayback machine. The article talked about pollution of America’s rivers before the EPA…and focused on Cleveland, Ohio.
How Physical Landscape Shaped Political Landscape
About two thirds of Americans alive today had not yet been born when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. So they have no memory of the event that helped give birth to the EPA.
I remember it vividly. I was born in Cleveland, not far from the Cuyahoga River. Some of my earliest and happiest memories of childhood revolved around clam bakes with my family in Lake Erie in the early 1950s. But then we had to stop. The clams, they said, were contaminated with pollution from the Cuyahoga.
When the Cuyahoga caught fire, it came to symbolize out-of-control pollution. It became the spark that led to the creation of the EPA.
Says Aylin Woodward, author of the BusinessInsider.com article, “The disaster prompted a public outcry that in part led to the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. The EPA was charged with regulating the country’s polluted air and waterways…”
“Documerica” Photo Archives
She continued. “Soon after its founding, the agency dispatched 100 photographers to capture the US’ environmental issues as part of a photo project called Documerica. The photographers took about 81,000 images, more than 20,000 of which were archived. At least 15,000 have been digitized by the National Archives, and the images now function as a kind of time capsule…”
The archives actually show many photographs of pollution coming from sand and gravel mines.
If you like looking at old photos, you will find this collection fascinating. This BusinessInsider article shows how people and businesses back then used rivers as sewers. A separate article in the Smithsonian goes into even more detail on the Cuyahoga.
Environmental Degradation Preceded Population Loss
Cleveland was a once-proud and booming city that symbolized America’s industrial might. In 1950, it ranked as the seventh largest city in the country. Houston at the time ranked only 14th with a little more than half of Cleveland’s population. In the latest census (2010), however…
Cleveland ranked 45th and had lost more than half the population it had 60 years earlier. It continues to lose population at an alarming rate.
San Jacinto Problems Not New
An alarming number of readers who saw yesterday’s post about the San Jacinto West Fork mouth bar commented on the massive amount of sediment pollution. They believe that not enough is being done to reduce the amount of sediment coming downstream.
Not all, but much of that sediment, in my opinion, came from approximately 20 square miles of sand mines upstream that were inundated by three so-called 500-year storms in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The rate of deposition has increased exponentially as you can see in the graph below.
FEMA believes that at least 500,000 cubic yards of sediment came downstream during Harvey. The City of Houston believes the number is closer to 1.4 million cubic yards.
All of that sediment pollution threatens the main source of the City’s drinking water by reducing its capacity.
Let’s Learn from History
The point of all this: history is repeating itself.
In 2006, American Rivers named the San Jacinto one of the 10 most endangered rivers in America… because of sand mining. And it has only become worse since then.
These developments make me fearful of the future that my children and grandchildren will inherit. If you share these feelings, please continue to apply pressure on elected representatives to push sand mines further back from the river.
What good is cheap concrete if the environment has become so degraded that people move elsewhere?
Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/13/2019
684 Days since Hurricane Harvey