We’ve Known Rivers

Langston Hughes wrote a very moving poem about rivers, later set to music by saxophonist Gary Bartz. Paraphrasing, it says, "I"ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins
I"ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers."

The poem speaks of "bath[ing] in the Euphrates when dawns were young." You"d think that we"d realize by now the need to preserve this ancient flow, but we"ve long treated the world"s rivers as dumping grounds, and we"re not about to change now.

Let"s use India as an example. Despite the status of the Ganges as a sacred river, India"s 14 major rivers are a dumping ground for sewage, industrial and agricultural waste, leading to a serious water-quality crisis for the people who live on their banks.

As the Christian Science Monitor reports, "But the holiest of India"s rivers is also its most polluted. In its 1,500 mile trek from its icy source high in the Himalayas to the tropical shores of the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges runs through one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Nearly 40 percent of India"s population of 960 million live in the Gangetic basin, most of them without access to sewer and sanitation facilities. Dozens of cities spew millions of gallons of untreated human and industrial waste into its sluggish waters every day."

India"s love/hate relationship with its rivers is mirrored around the world. We write poems about their beauty, then dump our waste into them. I once visited a remote river on a logging company back road in Maine, and saw it lined with tires, junked cars and whole refrigerators.

Every year, American Rivers prepares a list of our Most Endangered Rivers. I"ve read through a dozen of these lists over the years, and I"m always freshly shocked by our blatant disregard for these vital waterways. As the group reports, "America"s rivers and streams are becoming more polluted—and the White House and Congress are making a bad situation worse by cutting clean water law enforcement and spending on pollution prevention." According to President Rebecca R. Wodder, "The rivers on this year"s list face particularly dire futures but they are not unique. They are poster children for a nationwide trend towards more polluted waters and less effort to clean them up.

I note grimly that this year"s list includes the Housatonic River, which flows not five miles from my home in Connecticut. I guess I won"t be bringing my young daughters to swim there anytime soon:

1. Colorado River (flowing through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California): Water problems from human waste, toxic chemicals and radioactive material have been largely overlooked and threaten to get much worse. The drinking water of 25 million people may be at risk.

2. Big Sunflower River (Mississippi): Unless the Environmental Protection Agency rejects the so-called Yazoo Pumps flood control plan, the project could drain and damage seven times more wetlands than all the nation"s private developers in a year. The Army Corps of Engineers would dredge more than 100 miles of the Big Sunflower"s riverbed.

3. Snake (Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington): Dams on the Columbia and lower Snake have caused dramatic declines in the Snake"s once-abundant wild salmon population, with all the historic runs either extinct or sliding toward it.

4. Tennessee (Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky): Along the length of the Tennessee River, overloaded wastewater systems discharge large amounts of inadequately treated sewage into the river with distressing regularity.

5. Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers (West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York): Thousands of abandoned mines are leaking acid and other toxic substances into streams throughout the coal country of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

6. Spokane River (Idaho, Wyoming): More pollution concentrated in less water will be the future of the Spokane River unless new groundwater withdrawal applications are rejected, sewage plants meet stringent water quality standards, and mine waste is cleaned up.

7. Housatonic (Massachusetts, Connecticut): Irresponsible industrial activity has left the floodplain and river bottom of the Housatonic River contaminated with some of the highest levels of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the nation. People who consume contaminated fish and wildlife from along the river are at elevated risk for cancer, birth defects and immune problems. Unless the EPA orders a cleanup of the remaining contamination, General Electric Company’s toxic legacy in the Housatonic will remain a major health hazard for generations to come.

8. Peace River (Florida): Phosphate mining in the Peace River watershed has been the source of serious environmental problems for many years, and large new mines are planned. The Peace River is the source of drinking water for more than 750,000 people and supports important tourism and commercial fishing industries.

9. Big Darby Creek (Ohio): Despite its close proximity to Columbus, Ohio, Big Darby Creek has managed to escape many impacts of urban sprawl. That may be about to change. Unless state and local governments adopt and enforce river-conscious land-use planning in the Big Darby watershed, one of the highest-quality streams left in the Midwest may become just another polluted, flood-prone urban ditch.

10. Mississippi River (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana): After decades of manipulation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Mississippi River is beset with problems. Unless Congress gives the agency marching orders that reflect the needs, desires and opportunities of today’s communities, the river faces ecological collapse with vast negative economic impacts to tourism and recreation industries worth $21 billion per year.

At least one of the Presidential candidates reacted to the American Rivers statement. President Bush was silent, but Democratic candidate John Kerry declared, "Under George W. Bush our nation has fallen far short of the Clean Water Act"s goal of making our waters "drinkable, swimmable and fishable." We are experiencing a dangerous trend toward dirtier waters
.As Big Oil and other polluters find new loopholes in clean water laws, the Bush administration gives them a helping hand as they seek to relax hard-fought environmental regulations."

President Bush has spoken on this issue, if not actually done anything about it. He proclaimed 2002-2003 "The Year of Clean Water," and declared, "Recent studies show that we are close to achieving our goal of halting overall wetlands loss, and we are hopeful that in the near future we will begin increasing the overall function and value of our wetlands. As we look to the chal

lenges ahead, the Clean Water Act will be an important mainstay and tool for further progress."