And when I was young, we watched them burn.
Even 20 years after the 1972 Clean Water Act my children, growing up along the Grand River in Michigan, were forbidden to swim in the river and all but disinfected after swimming in Lake Michigan near its mouth. While I still worry about the long-term health effects, today’s Grand is renewed.
My 'heritage' rivers - the Nolichucky in North Carolina and East Tennessee and the Rika in the Ukraine - are smaller mountain rivers draining into large watersheds. The waters of the Nolichucky flow out of the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, feeding into the French Broad, the Tennessee, the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers. The Rika, rising in the Carpathian Mountains, flows south to the Tysa (Tysza) and eventually drains into the Danube north of Belgrade.
Relatively remote and with limited human populations nearby, they have not been polluted to the extent the downstream rivers have been. Still, there are threats to each from runoff waters.
Siltation, or the sediment from soil erosion, is the greatest threat. The resulting cloudiness in the water reduces the light available to the river ecosystem, damages water filtration systems used for power generation and drinking water, and can even inhibit recreational uses. Logging in the Smoky Mountains during 19th and early 20th centuries dramatically increased erosion and runoff. Commercial development is the largest contributing factor today to siltation in the Nolichucky. Logging and desperately needed development in the Carpathian Mountains compete with the environmental threats to the Rika, though the Ukraine and six other governments have signed an agreement to promote sustainable development in the mountains.
Increased levels of E. coli and contaminants from fertilizers and pesticides also threaten the rivers.
I was pleased when I investigated the current state of the Nolichucky River to find it being monitored and improving in quality. Farmers and developers are being encouraged to limit livestock access to the river and to install drainage systems to reduce stormwater runoff. These actions resulted in improved water quality in the three sections of the river being monitored for poor quality. One section was so improved it was removed from the list.
I have not been able to investigate the water quality of the Rika. Instead, I have watched as red sludge from an industrial site oozes into the Danube and threatens more villages in Hungary. Depressing as that vision is, I hold onto the improvements made here following the Clean Water Act and hope that similar efforts in Central and Eastern Europe will lead to cleaner rivers there.
For further information on
- Efforts to monitor and protect the Nolichucky River see the Middle Nolichucky Watershed Alliance website.
- Logging in the Smoky Mountains see Part III of the outstanding film series Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People. Even better - watch the whole series.
- Tennessee's Nolichucky watershed management plans see the 2008 report.
- The 2003 agreement to protect and develop the Carpathian Mountain region, see The Carpathian Convention.
- Logging in the Carpathians see "The Contribution of forestry to sustainable development in the Carpathian Mountains" by Anatoliy Deyneka. Presented at the 2009 World Forestry Congress.
- Maps of the Rika, the Tysza River Basin and information about the Danube Watershed see the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River website.
Photograph from the U.S. National Archives.