In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire. Its waters were so heavily contaminated with industrial solvents and wastes that the river simply burned.
That's hard for us to imagine these days, but the Cuyahoga was just one of thousands of filthy waterways. Across the country, our surface waters -- rivers and lakes and streams -- were in shocking condition.
People were astounded by the photographs of the burning river, and the fire on the Cuyahoga became a turning point for America. The Clean Waters Act was passed and, within a decade, America's rivers and lakes and streams and bays began to look like rivers and lakes and streams and bays again.
Up to a point, that is. Enforcement of the Clean Water Act mostly stopped factories from using waters as toxic waste dumps. But our waters are still far from pristine. Why? Much of the problem these days is from what experts call "nonpoint" sources.
Nonpoint refers to millions of small, hard-to-locate sources of pollution. For example, fertilizers and pesticides run-off from farms and gardens; hazardous household wastes poured down the drain; improperly dumped motor oil; contaminated rain water washing off filthy parking lots and roads; failing septic systems.
These nonpoint sources are proving hard to plug up. And until we do plug them, our waters won't be clean.
Fortunately, a number of organizations around the country are dedicated to getting the word out. They're teaching Aunt Dorothy that the oil dripping from the belly of her car is washing into the stream at the bottom of the road. They're showing your brother Bubba that by turning a blind eye to his limping septic system he's contaminating shellfish beds in the sound. And they'd like you to know that that weed-and-feed you're so fond of is turning the local lake a little greener and a little muckier every year.
There are a number of large environmental groups that work on water issues, nationally and internationally. Many other, smaller, groups focus on specific waterways. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, for example, is active in several states, working to improve the Chesapeake Bay. Save the Bay focuses on Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. Heal the Bay works to clean up Santa Monica Bay in California. (Pave the Bay was a popular bumper sticker in Washington, D.C., for a while, eclipsing Nuke the Whales, a perennial favorite.)
Here in Puget Sound, where I live, we have the newly formed People for Puget Sound. The group is doing its best to teach people better habits so that we can enjoy clean water. One way they're doing that is by suggesting 12 resolutions you can make that will help keep our waters clean.
You don't have to live in the Puget Sound drainage to adopt these resolutions. They'll be good for the environment wherever you live. So, with permission from the People, I'll adapt them slightly and print them here:
1. I will visit an aquarium, nature center or museum to learn more about the area's fish, animals and birds.
2. I will plant trees, shrubs and flowers to slow the flow of water runoff. (Make sure you plant drought-tolerant plants and not guzzlers.)
3. I will conserve water at home and at work.
4. I will store and use as little chemical weed and bug killer as possible.
5. I will try alternatives to chemical pesticides around my house and garden.
6. I will take leftover chemical pesticides, paint, thinners and other solvents to a hazardous waste collection center so they won't leach into the water.
7. I will keep my car in good running condition to keep oil drips and car exhaust chemicals out of surface waters, and I will take the bus, bike or walk as often as I can.
8. I will recycle all waste motor oil at a recycling station because oil and water don't mix.
9. I will use such nontoxic substances as vinegar or baking soda instead of chemical cleaners so surface water can be as clean as my household fixtures.
10. I will use unbleached and recycled paper products so paper companies can cut down on chemicals and bleaches discharged into surface waters.
11. I will buy products in containers that I can easily recycle or reuse so that garbage dumps and litter don't pollute surface waters.
12. I will share these resolutions with a friend or relative who is also concerned about protecting our waters. (12 B: I will not nag or bore any friends or relatives with these or any resolutions.)
These resolutions are simple and to the point. If we can all follow at least a few of them, we'll all be enjoying cleaner waters in the years to come.
Feeling environmentally incorrect? Write a letter to Ms. Household Environmentalist and send it to P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.