It was just a small fire, one of many that had erupted on Ohio's noxious Cuyahoga River over the years. But despite its minor nature, the Cleveland conflagration of June 22, 1969, became a sort of environmental poster child, illustrating the
degradation of America's rivers.
The Return of the Cuyahoga, a documentary airing April 18 on PBS, suggests that the fire came at just the right moment in history. Environmental concerns were starting to become part of the national agenda, and one short year after the blaze, that unease produced the first Earth Day.
Partially because of congressional testimony about pollution given by Cleveland's then-Mayor Carl Stokes, the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. More importantly, the ways in which the once putrid river has been brought back to health provide a template for other polluted waterways across America.
Video: "Return of the Cuyahoga" clip (2:45)
"Over the past 40 years or so, the American public has woken up to the fact that quality of life includes environmental issues," said Len Materman of the nonprofit organization America's River Communities. "Communities now see the waterway through their community as an economic resource and the way they view their community, and they act upon that. The environment doesn't have to be degraded for people to act anymore."
Still, there's a long way to go. And a good deal of the problem these days is not from those nasty industries that dump chemical pollutants into our rivers and streams. That's known as point-source pollution, and for the most part, the Clean Water Act has helped take care of that particular part of the puzzle.
The issue now, said Lawrence Hott, director of the Cuyahoga documentary, is that we are using things in our daily life that leach into the river. "Until we recognize we're responsible for what we put down the drain, we won't be able to clean up the rivers," he said.
That covers an awful lot of territory: sewage from farms, suburbanites who use chemicals so their lawns will look picture perfect, folks who pour waste materials down their drains. This also includes human waste that can get into waterways when drains are not adequate to control overflow during intense storms.
Materman said there are a number of ways to deal with these problems, such as "programs educating people about what to do, like not dumping motor oil down storm drains."
But he also said a major problem lies in how we have developed our suburban areas. "If we develop real estate in a floodway and a flood comes, it takes everything with it into the local watershed," Materman said. If developments are built outside the flood plain, chances are that toxic materials won't run off into rivers and streams during storms.
Hott, who has been making documentaries about the environment for 30 years, realizes that too many people have been conditioned to expect a certain lifestyle, what he referred to as "this upper-middle-class ideal." But that ideal may not be environmentally sustainable anymore, and if citizens aren't willing to change voluntarily, then, he said, "There has to be a way to punish people, and market forces might be the only way."
It's a combination of education and other factors. Some municipalities are already charging for every bag of garbage a person puts out on the curb. And Hott said that if water prices begin to rise significantly, it affects behaviors.
"If you are educated to understand that part of the cost for water treatment is pollution, and [you] are part of the cause of pollution, then it hits [you] in the pocketbook," Hott said.
But if the resurrection of the Cuyahoga teaches anything, it's that the entire community must be involved.
In Cleveland, and other towns along the river, a coalition of businesses, government and environmental groups banded together to solve the problem. "Just as 100 years ago people made decisions that emphasized industrial growth," Materman said, "communities along the Cuyahoga made the decision that quality of life includes not just economic growth, but the quality of the environment."
So the basic message of the film is that a river can be brought back from the dead. And if ever a river was defunct, it was the Cuyahoga — film from its polluted days shows a waterway that is more sludge than anything else, so filled with oil and other junk that it looks sturdy enough to walk on. The river had caught fire at least seven times since 1883, sometimes with fatal results.
Today the water is clear and wildlife has returned, and the city is even working on creating what are known as "ecological bulkheads" in the shipping channel, which will create natural habitats for fish.
Can rivers like the Cuyahoga come all the way back? The filmmakers have noted that the Michigan's Rouge River, Philadelphia's Schuylkill and the Chicago River "all burned as often and as drastically as the Cuyahoga."
"Nature has a great ability to resurrect itself," Materman said, "and if we can reduce or eliminate the obstacles to resurrecting itself, I think they can come back."
Hott added: "There is hope you can reclaim a dead river if citizens, activists and business people work together. But it takes a long time, a consistent effort and a lot of money."