Hate That Dirty Water
Article published in Plenty Magazine, December 2008 (print only)
Polluting of the nation’s urban rivers began as many as 400 years ago: Boston’s historical records show a 1656 ordinance allowing the dumping of “beast entrails and garbidg” into the Charles River. As industrialization progressed, America’s waterways fell victim to all sorts of nasty pollutants.
But since the Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed in 1972, some cities have started cleaning up their acts—and their rivers. Thirty-six years later, waters once considered contaminated are becoming attractive again. Take a look at some of the more successful works in progress:
Charles River, Boston, MA
Inspiring the song “Dirty Water,” the Charles was once so polluted it caught fire. After years of curbing sewage and rainwater overflows, the river earned an EPA grade of B+ for swimming in 2007, with a caveat about toxic sediment on the bottom. Rowing is also popular. (www.communityrowing.org).
Colorado River, Austin, TX
Eighteenth-century explorers reported that the Colorado ran clear, but storm water pollution, soil erosion and illegal dumping muddied the pristine waters. Since 1935, the Lower Colorado River Authority has managed clean-up; now, the best place to take a dip is Barton Springs, a 900-foot, spring-fed pool. Anglers love the stretch below Longhorn Dam for reeling in Guadalupe bass.
Hudson River, New York, NY
For years, unchecked industry at facilities including GE dumped chemicals like PCBs in the Hudson. But thanks to the EPA, you can crawl the waters around Manhattan by signing up for a swim hosted by the Manhattan Island Foundation (www.nycswim.org). It’s not advisable to swim regularly, but 6 annual swims are offered by the MIF, and swimming in the Hudson was popularized recently by a book called “Nine Ways to Cross a River.” The city’s Downtown Boathouse (www.downtownboathouse.org) offers free kayaks for cruising, and the river also boasts a floating swimming pool with permeable walls at the town of Beacon, about 70 miles north of the city.
Kennebec River, Augusta, ME
Augusta residents once considered this river a virtual cesspool, poisoned by chlorine and other chemicals from pulp-and-paper mills. Due to dumping restrictions, it’s now a recreational dream: North Country Rivers (www.ncrivers.com) arranges rafting trips on its class 2-4+ rapids, and the waters of the Upper Kennebec Valley boast some of the finest wild trout fishing in the Eastern US.
Potomac River, Washington, DC
President Lyndon B. Johnson called the Potomac “a national disgrace,” and incited a plan to restore its ecology. In 2007, swimmers in the Nation’s triathlon were permitted to crawl this capitol city river for a day. City-dwellers can kayak (www.outdoorexcursions.com) or jog along the 20-mile Anacostia River Walk.
Rouge River, Detroit, MI
Ten years of restoring wetlands and controlling storm runoff plus a $500 million investment have made the Rouge healthy enough to dismiss its reputation as the tailpipe of Motor City. The waterway supports a small sport fishery, and the Detroit River into which it flows offers a half-mile swimming beach at Belle Isle.
Truckee River, Reno, NV
Local garbage clean-up efforts have allowed the Truckee in downtown Reno to invite people back to its waters, which once contained tires and other floating debris. A new whitewater park (www.visitrenotahoe.com) offers 2,600 feet of class 2-3 rapids, and a kayak slalom-racing course is in the works.
Duwamish River, Seattle, WA
In 2001, the EPA designated the Duwamish as a Superfund site because hazardous waste from Boeing and other industries had poisoned the marine life. Now, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition is working with the federal government to enact a recovery. So far, visitors can enjoy a restored waterfront at Gateway Park North in Georgetown, but it’s still not safe to eat most fish.
One to Watch: Santa Fe River, Santa Fe, New Mexico
For most of the year, the Santa Fe is bone dry, and in 2007, national conservation nonprofit American Rivers named it the most endangered river in America. But in a 2007 State of the City address to Santa Fe residents, Mayor David Coss proposed to dedicate 1000 acre-feet of water to the river. A Santa Fe River Fund that collects donations from locals and matches them with City funds has also been established to start the river flowing again, with hopes that water quantity and quality can both be revitalized.