Celebrate and Protect Our Rivers
By Marion Stoddart and John Duff

(This OpEd appeared in the Providence Journal, Sunday June 10, 2012;
and in the Worcester Telegram, as 'Rivers cleaner, still work to do,' June 14, 2012)

stoddart duff oped w1kwebJune 2012 - Last week, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar highlighted projects in 10 northeastern states that serve as models of the “America’s Great Outdoors Rivers Initiative.”  We are fortunate that Salazar’s initiative includes two New England rivers: the Blackstone River and the Connecticut River.

The timing of this initiative is apropos, given that June is National Rivers Month, and 2012 marks the 40th Anniversary of the Federal Clean Water Act...

Download the pdf of this OpEd article.

...As our families plan summer vacations and dig out their water gear, many will enjoy not only the Connecticut and Blackstone rivers, but dozens of others that flow throughout our region, such as the Charles, Taunton, Mystic, Shawsheen, Housatonic and Merrimack rivers, to name just a few. Let’s be thankful for the Clean Water Act, which helped improve our rivers so that we can enjoy them in ways that were impossible just a few years ago.

Indeed, in earlier eras, waterways were viewed as workhorses for economic growth—against the costs of other societal goals such as human health, recreation, and vital ecosystems. In 1899, Congress enacted what could be considered its first environmental protection statute, the Rivers and Harbors Act. That early law responded to the amount and kind of debris being disposed of in our waterways that threatened navigation.  But it was not enough, rivers were and continued to be our industrial production and waste disposal systems.

By the 1950s and 1960s many rivers were so seriously polluted as to be nearly lifeless.

But change was on the way; citizen activists advocated for cleaner water, and local, state and federal agencies worked to enact environmental laws and policies. In 1965 Congress passed the Federal Water Quality Act, establishing the infrastructure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters and regulating quality standards for surface waters.  The following year, Massachusetts became first in the nation to pass state legislation that complemented the recent Federal legislation. And 1972 saw the passage of the Clean Water Act, the key piece of legislation created to restore and protect our nation’s waterways.

Forty years later, we have success stories to celebrate. The Nashua River, which wends its way through north central Massachusetts into southern New Hampshire, was once one of the 10 most polluted rivers in America. Today the Nashua River is a shining example of what can be done when citizens, legislators and businesses persevere, commit and cooperate. Because of those efforts, we can paddle our canoes on the river, fish from its banks, swim in it, bicycle or walk along the adjacent greenway. Wildlife has returned. Businesses and residences along the riverbanks enjoy better property values. The Nashua is now seen as a regional asset.

The Nashua clean-up set a precedent; since then, dozens of other New England rivers have been revitalized. But let’s remember that the work will never be done. We will always need watchdogs and stewards to ensure that laws are implemented, not weakened, and that new laws are passed when needed.  Indeed, some waterways still have a long way to come to recover from past lapses. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about a third of the nation’s waters are still unhealthy.

Rivers still face a variety of threats:

  • Non-point source pollution, in the form of storm water runoff, lawn fertilizers and pesticides and failed septic systems.
  • Pharmaceutical drugs that enter our sewerage.
  • Increasing residential and commercial water demand. The more water we withdraw from the aquifers, the less it flows to our rivers, causing stress to river ecosystems.

We must guard against relapse. Remind your neighbors, friends and representatives that our rivers provide vital recreation, wildlife habitat, and watershed reserves. Get involved in river restoration efforts. Celebrate and protect the rivers all year long, not just in June, so we can provide our children and grandchildren with a legacy of abundant, clean waterways.

Marion Stoddart founded the Nashua River Watershed Association in 1969, and is the subject of the award-winning documentary film, “Marion Stoddart: The Work of 1000.” John Duff, J.D., LL.M., is an associate professor in the Environmental, Earth & Ocean Sciences Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston.