This summer, people worldwide are looking back to 1969—spurred by celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the moon. Back then you could buy a new car for about $3,270, fuel up at just 35¢ a gallon and then drive to your home that cost about $15,550, that’s total, not a down payment! The world had not yet made friends with Bert, Ernie and crew—Sesame Street would debut about four months after the moon landing—and rock-n-rollers wouldn’t experience all that was muddy and marvelous about Woodstock for about another month. In 1969, Richard Nixon was in office, Milwaukee’s Golda Meir took over as prime minister of Israel, Boeing’s 747 Jumbo Jet made its first flight, the invention of the first microprocessor paved the way for the computer revolution, and the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire for the 13th time.
Did that last historic factoid cause you to pause and say, “Huh, water on fire?” Well, I’m sure you’re not alone.
Without getting into too many details, industrial waste had been polluting the Cuyahoga River for decades. The river snakes along a course of more than 80 miles through northeastern Ohio and into Lake Erie. On June 22, 1969, sparks from a passing train ignited sewage and oil slicks on the river, setting it ablaze, causing more than $100,000 worth of damage and—finally, for the sake of the environment—led to some national media attention, courtesy of Time magazine. That one fire, along with the attention it gained, is celebrated by environmentalists as the event triggering the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970—and the subsequent passing of … wait for it … the Clean Water Act in 1972!
Now, let’s go back to 1969. Can you imagine turning on your tap, filling your glass and “enjoying” water that wasn’t subjected to the rigorous water-quality criteria that regulate our drinking water today? Or taking your grandchildren for an afternoon of fishing along a river that was subject to any and every form of waste “dumping” that local manufacturers cared to practice? These are just a few examples that illustrate how good we have it today, thanks to the EPA.
We’ve come a long way since in 50 years, for sure. But the history book is far from closed when it comes to water quality and sustainability. The EPA estimates that about half of all U.S. rivers and streams, one-third of all lakes and ponds, and two-thirds of all bays and estuaries are “impaired” and not suitable for fishing and swimming. Water pollution nationwide continues to nurture hazardous algae blooms that compromise aquatic life. Every August, we celebrate Water Quality Month and leverage this national observance to further mobilize individuals, businesses and communities in the ongoing effort to protect our natural water resources and elevate the levels at which safe, quality drinking water is accessible to everyone. This August, remember how a few small sparks from a train in 1969 ignited a giant leap forward in water quality. Then, renew your own efforts at home to help prevent water pollution—you never know how great an impact you might make!