The Rivers Sad Song

"I’ve known rivers," wrote the great African-American poet Langston Hughes, "ancient, dusky rivers." He "heard the singing of the Mississippi" and watched "its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset."

Jerry Russell Illustration

Today, the Mississippi is the most polluted river in the U.S., and its song is a cry for help. The river’s banks are lined with city-sized chemical plants, which dump more than 50 million pounds of toxins annually. Hundreds of miles of the river’s meandering course are considered "impaired" by state and federal water-quality offices. Runoff from farms and city streets pours nitrogen and phosphorus into it. More than 400 species of wildlife are threatened by a spreading "dead zone" with dangerously low levels of oxygen.

The free flow of America’s rivers is impeded by as many as 80,000 dams, which have buried 17 percent of the country’s river miles underneath reservoirs. Only one percent of our rivers are permanently protected in their original form.

Our river waters are also tragically diverted. In the western U.S., for instance, the General Accounting Office estimates that 85 percent of developed water is used for agriculture, and 50 percent of all irrigation is wasted. The result is that a river like the Colorado, which starts out high and wide in the Rocky Mountains, is reduced to what the River Network calls "a feeble, polluted trickle" by the time it reaches the Gulf of California.

On paper at least, the days when an uncontrolled manufacturing sector could treat America’s rivers like open sewers are over. In the early 1960s, reports Alice Outwater in her book Water, the Calumet River, which empties into Lake Michigan, was "receiving a daily dose of about 100,000 pounds of oil, 35,000 pounds of ammonia, 3,500 pounds of phenols, and 3,000 pounds of cyanide from the dense industrial complex around Chicago, Gary and Hammond." Small wonder that, in that era, rivers routinely caught fire.

We’re making progress, but our rivers are still in desperate need. Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers compiles a list of the nation’s most-threatened waterways each year. In E‘s cover story, Dick Russell offers a close-up look at the 13 rivers on the 2001 list.

It’s disheartening to learn how much of the worst damage to our rivers is caused by the "helpful" activities of government agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And don’t count on the Bush administration (profiled in our second feature this issue) to lead the charge for river conservation—its environmental team is focused on exploitation, and its single-minded determination to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is imperiling rivers in Alaska.

It is helpful that a growing body of conservationists, including Riverkeepers and American Heritage Rivers, are advocating for rivers and rewarding community action to save our watersheds, which have long been exploited by corporate greed and ruinous governmental policy. Like Langston Hughes, these activists are people who have known rivers, and they are raising their voices to help protect them.