My mom spent part of her childhood in a tiny Illinois town along the Mississippi River. During spring, as the upper Midwest's snowmelt collided with drenching rains, the river often jumped its banks, flooding cornfields with silty waters and thrashing catfish, and turning the town into a sort of Huck Finn-style Venice, its few houses accessible only by canoe (or perhaps raft). Once, she recalls, a bloated human body floated in, and, after it was dragged to dry ground, a local boy "double-dog-dared" her brother to touch its pallid flesh. He did – and suffered terrifying nightmares for days.
Back then, few knew that the Mississippi carried even more frightening things, including huge loads of fertilizer and other runoff from farms up and down its spine. Concentrated in their final resting place in the Gulf of Mexico, they have caused a massive dead zone now roughly the size of Connecticut. But 150 years of industrialization and a growing understanding of chemistry and ecology have forced us to realize that we have deeply wounded our beautiful life-giving rivers and nursing them back to health won't be easy.
In the rural West, river pollution seems somewhat straightforward, if not always easy to repair: A century's worth of toxic, heavy-metal mining waste piles up behind a dam, say (as happened at Milltown Dam on Montana's Clark Fork River before it was torn down and cleaned up in 2010); or a giant pile of uranium tailings left on the banks starts leaking radioactive material (like the one on the Colorado River just upriver from Moab, Utah, now steadily being removed, truckload by truckload).
But most cases, especially in our cities, are more complicated, as Daniel Person writes in this issue's cover story. Person has long followed the effort to clean up the industrialized section of Seattle's Duwamish River, which has been so radically re-engineered for industry that it is now considered a "waterway" rather than a river. Federal Superfund monies will soon facilitate the removal of PCB-laced river-bottom sediments, and the rest of the polluted sediment will be sealed underneath rocks and sand. But, as Person notes, even this effort will have limited benefit because thousands of storm drains will continue to pour polluted, untreated runoff from Seattle's streets into the Duwamish.
If there is a silver lining, it can be found in the diverse local working-class communities that are working with green activists, the EPA and city officials to bring the Duwamish back to life. Many locals still use the river to catch fish and thereby connect with their cultural heritage, whether Vietnamese or Native American. But eating the river's fish is dangerous. Cleaning the Duwamish to the point where native species thrive and people don't get sick from eating them will be a genuine victory, not only for the environment, but for the city's residents. And perhaps it will inspire the people of Seattle to take even bolder action.