What a difference 100 years makes.
In 1918, a US-Canadian commission reported on the condition of the boundary waters between the two countries with an emphasis on the connecting waters of the Great Lakes. In the words of the International Joint Commission, the situation was a disgrace.
It was also fatal to thousands. At the time, many communities drew their drinking water from rivers into which upstream communities dumped their typically untreated sewage. Predictably, disease resulted. Typhoid and cholera outbreaks were not rare.
Among the boundary waters studied were the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers. The Commission also compiled health statistics from communities relying on the two waterways for drinking water, including Port Huron, St. Clair, Marine City, Algonac, Detroit, River Rouge, Ecorse, Wyandotte and Trenton. The results were striking: typhoid fever death rates were highest in cities whose community water supplies were drawn from the foulest water.
The St. Clair River was too polluted for drinking without extensive treatment for 34 miles south of Port Huron. Even worse was the Detroit River. “From Fighting Island to the mouth of the river the water is grossly polluted and totally unfit as a source of water supply…Unfortunately, Wyandotte, Trenton and Amherstburg are taking their water supplies from this part of the river,” the Commission said.
Those on land weren’t the only victims. In 1907, a steamer traveling the Great Lakes pulled drinking water from the Detroit River, resulting in 77 cases of typhoid fever. In 1913, on three Great Lakes vessels carrying 750 people, there were 300 cases of diarrhea, 52 cases of typhoid and seven deaths.
The report helped spur governments along the border, including Detroit and downstream communities, to chlorinate drinking water supplies and save lives.
We look back on such practices as primitive. But 100 years from now, which of our practices will seem primitive to our descendants?
Have we really come so far in a century, or are we creating a new generation of problems with the same shortsightedness as our ancestors? The public trust doctrine, with its intergenerational concerns and duties, can help us prevent and resolve the mistreatment of our waters.