Celebrate and Protect Our Rivers and Oceans
By Marion Stoddart and John Duff
June 17, 2012 - Memorial Day signaled the unofficial start of summer as families moved their remembrances and celebrations outdoors and began digging out their water garb and gear. But did you know that June is National Rivers Month and June 8th was World Oceans Day? Thankfully, the Clean Water Act helps us celebrate in, at and on our rivers and seas in ways that many thought impossible just a few years ago.
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Our rivers and oceans are our lifeblood. As human societies settled some lands and set out to explore others they did so relying upon our waterways. Native Americans and American colonists fished and travelled upon the waters and founded settlements on the shores of life-sustaining rivers, lakes, and oceans. On July 4, 1776 we articulated our connection and concern when the founders charged King George III with “plunder[ing] our seas, [and] ravag[ing] our coasts.”
Yet our own stewardship has wavered over the decades. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries we used and took from our rivers and ocean spaces presuming that they would always support us. But as the nineteenth century came to a close, we realized that we had used our waterways as disposal systems for so long that we were degrading their “condition and capacity.” In 1899, Congress enacted the Rivers and Harbors Act to protect the navigability of our waterways.
In the twentieth century, our population grew, our technology developed and our demands on rivers and seas increased. The results of amplified, unmonitored use were disturbingly apparent in the 1960s as our rivers changed color and viscosity and in some cases burst into flames. Citizen activists gathered once again, not to rebel but to reform the way we used our waterways. The Nashua River was just one example of conditions around the state and around the country.
The fledgling Nashua River Watershed Association worked diligently to find common ground among competing interests and served as a model for other clean water advocates. We convened residents, business owners and lawmakers along the Nashua River to show them what was and remind them of what we had lost. We built political will that lawmakers could rely on to pass a clean water law in Massachusetts that served as a model for a law that would ultimately apply throughout the United States. This year marks the 40th Anniversary of the Federal Clean Water Act, a key piece of a national effort to restore and protect our nation’s waterways so that they can be “fishable” and “swimmable” once again.
Throughout New England people can plan on boating along, swimming in and fishing from rivers and bays deemed unsafe a generation ago. From the Nashua to the Neponset, from the Mystic to the Merrimack, from Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor to Peaks Island in Casco Bay, we can set out into the streams and seas of good news. But the benefits derived from the Clean Water Act depend on continual stewardship. Indeed some waterways still have a long way to come to recover from past lapses. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about a third of the nation’s waters are still unhealthy. The Clean Water Act has more work to do. We can’t think of another instance where people can literally immerse themselves in the results of sound national policy.
After a period of successful treatment, we may be tempted to let our prescription run out, to let our behavior slide back. Let’s guard against relapse. We can bring back more stretches of our rivers and coasts to amaze ourselves and provide our children and grandchildren with the wonders of our waterway connections. The fact that we’ve made progress does not mean the threats have disappeared. The good news is there are more and more groups engaged in water education and recreation. Jump right in. Teach a child to swim. Learn how to kayak or canoe.
Go back to the water. Be respectful. Be rewarded. Celebrate our oceans and rivers on their day, during their month and all year long. Remind your neighbors, friends and representatives what our rivers and coasts mean to us all. Get involved in efforts to ensure that the memories you have are possibilities for others this summer and in the years to come.
See you on the water.
In recognition of her lifelong work, Marion Stoddart has received many awards, including the United Nations Global 500 Award in Nairobi, Kenya, the EPA's Environmental Award, and a presidential commendation. She founded the Nashua River Watershed Association in 1969, and is the subject of the award-winning documentary film, “The Work of 1000” which is on a 2012 tour with the Wild & Scenic Film Festival. John Duff, J.D., LL.M., is an associate professor in the Environmental, Earth & Ocean Sciences Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His research and writings focus on ocean and coastal policy; marine resource management; ocean zoning; and land use.