Photo of a FLOW Staff and Board retreat on the Boardman River in Grand Traverse County in September.
When Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969—the same year Michigan’s Rouge River blazed because of waste oil—America had had enough of worsening water pollution. Public opinion strongly favored tougher laws and enforcement to protect water.
It took a little more than three years, but on October 18,1972, overriding a veto by President Richard Nixon, Congress enacted what has come to be known as the federalClean Water Act. Along with considerable federal aid for construction of municipal sewage treatment facilities, the Act called for water quality standards and action by the states to implement the law and achieve the benchmarks.
The law resulted in dramatic, initial progress. Visible pollution in the nation’s lakes and streams declined; the reduction in algal blooms achieved by restricting phosphorus pollution restored the health of Lake Erie, which had been declared dead by the news media. Rivers no longer burned. Many beaches were safe and attractive for swimming again.
The Act was ambitious. It set the goal of rendering all of the nation’s waters fishable and swimmable by 1983, and for the end of water pollution discharges by 1985—goals that are far from being met today. According toa 2017 report to Congress by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
Rivers and streams—A 2008 assessment found that 46% of U.S. river and stream miles were in poor biological condition; phosphorus and nitrogen were the most widespread of the chemical stressors assessed.
Lakes, ponds, and reservoirs—The National Lakes Assessment 2012 found that 21% of the nation’s lakes were hypereutrophic (i.e., with the highest levels of nutrients, algae, and plants). Phosphorus and nitrogen were the most widespread stressors in lakes.
Coastal waters—According to a 2010 study, 18% of the nation’s coastal and Great Lakes waters were in poor biological condition, and 14% were rated poor based on a water quality index. Phosphorus is the leading stressor contributing to the poor water quality index rating.
Wetlands—A 2011 assessment found that 32% of the nation’s wetland area was in poor biological condition, with leading stressors including surface hardening (soil compaction) and vegetation removal.
The mixed condition of the nation’s waters is due to a combination of funding cuts for sewage treatment plants, population growth and expanded urban/suburban runoff, the expansion of large factory farms, and inconsistent enforcement.
Still, the Clean Water Act has resulted in significant progress in Michigan since 1972. A majority of inland lakes, the Great Lakes, and rivers meet water quality standards for swimming and other full body recreation.
Two limitations of the Clean Water Act are that it does not protect most groundwater (45% of Michigan’s population is served by drinking water from wells) and provisions that mostly exempt agriculture, a significant contributor to bacteriological and phosphorus pollutants to the nation’s waters. An exception to the latter loophole is a requirement that large livestock operations apply for Clean Water Act permits.
There have been numerous amendments to the Act since 1972. Title I of the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act of 1990, for example, put into place parts of the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978, where the two nations agreed to reduce certain toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes. That law required the EPA to establish water quality criteria for the Great Lakes addressing 29 toxic pollutants with maximum levels that are safe for humans, wildlife, and aquatic life.
Strengthening the Act should be on the agenda of the next session of Congress. To truly fulfill its promise, increased sewage treatment funding and more effective approaches to urban and farm runoff are critical. Perhaps the 50th birthday of the Act, in 2022, can bring America’s waters closer to the vision the Act’s authors had in 1972.
John Hartig is intimately connected with one of the most successful environmental restoration projects in the United States, the recovery of the once highly degraded Detroit River. He retired in 2018after 14 years as manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and more than 30 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In his new book, Waterfront Porch: Reclaiming Detroit’s Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Place for All, he chronicles the exciting comeback of the river and the connection restoration efforts have forged between the community and the river.
What is the single most important thing a prospective reader should know about your new book?
Waterfront Porch is the story of building the Detroit RiverWalk as part of a strategy to reconnect people with nature, help revitalize Detroit and its metropolitan region, and help foster a more sustainable future. In its first 10 years, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy raised $110 million to build east riverfront portions of the Detroit RiverWalk and raised another nearly $40 million for an endowment to operate, maintain, steward, and program it with quality and in perpetuity. Economists have quantified that in the first 10 years of the Detroit RiverWalk, there was an over $1 billion return on this investment, with the potential for greater return in the future. All of this happened while Detroit became the largest city in the United States to go through bankruptcy. This was an amazing accomplishment that can be directly traced to the unique public-private partnership called the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and its approach of democratic design that ensured all stakeholders were involved and would benefit. If this can be done in Detroit, it can be done elsewhere and clearly gives hope to all.
You’ve dedicated much of your life and career to restoring the Detroit River. What motivates you and where did your relationship with the river begin?
I grew up in metropolitan Detroit in Allen Park during the 1960s. My family enjoyed picnicking and canoeing on Belle Isle and fishing in the Detroit River. In the summer, we would vacation up north in different cottages and my sister and I attended a church camp in a wilderness area of the northern portion of the Lower Peninsula. These formative years provided me with two polar-opposite experiences — one recreating in pristine lakes and rivers up north and the other recreating in and along the polluted Detroit River. I could not understand why there was such a stark contrast. Then in 1969, when I was a junior at Allen Park High School, the Rouge River caught on fire because of oil pollution. The next year, when I was a senior in high school, I attended an Earth Day Rally on the football field of Allen Park High School that opened my eyes to the environmental degradation that was occurring everywhere. I decided I wanted to help be part of the solution. While attending Eastern Michigan University I got hooked on the study of lakes and rivers, and have been fortunate to be able to combine my vocation with my advocation.
Why did the River deteriorate so much up to the 60s and what are the principal factors that turned it around?
During the 1960s, the Detroit River was one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. In 1960 and 1967, 12,000 and 4,700 waterfowl died in the Detroit River because of oil pollution, respectively. In 1969, the lower Rouge River, right before it discharges into the Detroit River, caught on fire because of oil pollution. In 1970, the “Mercury Crisis” caused the closure of commercial and sport fishing on the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, and western Lake Erie because of mercury contamination. All of this led to public outcry over water pollution that contributed to the establishment of Earth Day in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Together, public outcry over water pollution and regulation have been the driving forces behind the revival of the Detroit River.
How important was the work of the late Congressman Dingell to river restoration?
The late Congressman John Dingell had more impact on the cleanup of the Detroit River than any other person. He was the key author of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Together, these acts have been the driving force behind the cleanup of the Detroit River. In more recent years he was the author of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act of 2001 that helped change the perception of the Detroit River from that of a polluted river in the Rust Belt to an international wildlife refuge that brings conservation to the Detroit metropolitan area and helps make nature part of everyday urban life. He is a true conservation hero for our region, our country, and North America.
What remains to be done?
Clearly, much remains to be done to restore physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Detroit River. Key challenges include addressing: human population growth, transportation expansion, and land use changes; continued loss and degradation of habitat; pollution from the runoff from our streets, parking lots, and roofs; remediation of contaminated river sediments and brownfields; introduction of exotic species; and climate change. To address these challenges, we need an informed constituency that cares about the river as their home, ensures continuous and vigorous oversight, and speaks out for continued cleanup and rehabilitation. A key part of this has been reconnecting people to the Detroit River through the Detroit RiverWalk, other greenways, parks like Belle Isle, and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Waterfront Porch is the story of building the Detroit RiverWalk as part of a strategy to reconnect people with the Detroit River, help revitalize the city and region, help foster a more sustainable future, and help develop a stewardship ethic within the citizenry. Completing the Detroit RiverWalk, greenway connections to neighborhoods like the May Creek Greenway and the Joseph Campau Greenway, and the Joe Louis Greenway that circumnavigates the city are key elements in reconnecting people with nature, developing greater environmental literacy, and developing a stewardship ethic so necessary for restoring and sustaining the integrity of the Detroit River.
It is fair to say that the Detroit RiverWalk would not have been built without the cleanup of the Detroit River. But it is also true that continued cleanup of the Detroit River will require an informed and vocal constituency who cares for the river as their home and greenways like the Detroit RiverWalk help reconnect people with amazing natural resources right in their backyard, inspire a sense of wonder, and help foster a stewardship ethic.
Are you optimistic about the future of the River? Why or why not?
I am optimistic about the future. The major accomplishment of the public outcry over water pollution in the 1960s was the establishment of major environmental laws and agreements like the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Canada Water Act of 1970, the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, and the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. This is an amazing set of accomplishments from concerned citizens working together to speak out for clean water. In my opinion, the major accomplishment of more recent times is the establishment of a plethora of environmental organizations, conservation organizations, and other nongovernmental organizations. For the Detroit River it is organizations like the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Friends of the Detroit River, the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, the Detroit Greenways Coalition, the Belle Isle Conservancy, and many more. These organizations have picked up the environmental baton from citizen activists of the 1960s and 1970s and are continuing the long restoration race to ensure that a cleaner Detroit River is a gift to future generations. This gives me optimism and hope.