It has been 50 years since the fire at Cuyahoga River that led to the creation of the Clean Water Act. How was the once-polluted river instrumental in creating the cornerstone of protecting water in the United States?

Cuyahoga River Fires

On June 22, 1969, a fire erupted in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River. It lasted for just 20 minutes, but it was soon featured in Time magazine, which described the river as one that “oozes rather than flows,” and where a person “does not drown but decays.”

It was not the first time that the Cuyahoga River went on fire. In fact, there were at least 13 fires in the Cuyahoga River, the first one occurring in 1868 and the largest occurring in 1952 which, caused over $1 million in damages.

One Of The Most Polluted Rivers In The United States

At the time, the Cuyahoga River was considered as one of the most polluted rivers in the United States, the water in it being pitch-black and polluted with oil. There were also no fish in the water from Akron to Cleveland in the 1950s and the 1960s, and by 1968, foam from detergent chemicals and factory discharge had sprouted on the surface of the river.

It was the 1969 fire sparked public concern and triggered serious water pollution control activities. Eventually, the actions lead to the creation of the Clean Water Act, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act is considered the cornerstone of protecting surface water quality in the United States. Under CWA, it is unlawful to discharge pollutants from the point of source to any navigable waters unless a permit is secured.

In the CWA’s early years, the focus was mainly on regulating the discharge from traditional sources such as factories and treatment plants, with little thought about the runoff from the streets, farms, and construction sites. But through the years, efforts to limit such runoffs have also been placed.

“CWA programs, as they evolved over the last decade, have shifted from a program-by-program, source-by-source, pollutant-by-pollutant approach to more holistic watershed-based strategies. Under a watershed approach, equal emphasis is placed on protecting healthy waters and restoring impaired ones,” states the EPA.

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