The Clean Water Act Through the Generations: Generation X Series

How has the Clean Water Act impacted your life? For those of us born before or around the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, we interpret this law through the eyes of Generation X.

North River, MA

North River, MA | Capthall | Panoramio

I remember walking with my dad across Salem, Mass, from our house in North Salem to my Grammy’s house in Witchcraft Heights, when I was 4 years old.  When we walked over Mount Pleasant and down Howley St., over the North River Canal, I remember smelling the sweet, pungent odor of the chemicals discharged into the canal from the leather factories in Salem and Peabody. 

When the tide came in, the canal would fill with a briny mix of chemicals, dyes, and solvents, sometimes dying the water red, or green or blue, other times just a consistent light greenish brown.  When the tide receded, that chemical sludge, or some of it anyway, flowed out to the North River, and from there into Salem Harbor.  It had been that way since the 1830s. 

Thirty years later, I’m grown up, and I have a 4 year-old daughter of my own.  If I took her back to Salem and Peabody, where parts of our family resided for four generations, and I described the scene I set above, she’d have no idea what I’m talking about.   

Because thanks to the Clean Water Act, you can’t just dump chemicals in the water anymore.  Thanks to the Clean Water Act, you can’t just turn the river red because that’s the color leather being dyed in the tannery that day.  Now people in Salem and Peabody are beginning to see the North River as an asset to the community, rather than a punch line.  There are high-end condos that look out over the river; on a summer afternoon you can see people boating, tubing, swimming, fishing, or just enjoying the summer air.

Is the work done?  No.  More than 150 years of pollution can’t be reversed overnight.  And new challenges face the river of my childhood, particularly from stormwater runoff.  But thanks to the Clean Water Act, there is not only a mechanism for cleaning up impaired watersheds, but there is also a change in the way we look at rivers in our community.  Rivers are no longer convenient avenues for waste disposal; they are arteries that connect us. 

Every generation should have as its mission to leave to the next generation a better world.  Thanks to the Clean Water Act, my parents’ generation bequeathed to me a cleaner environment.  Their legacy is a new community ethic that says that dumping untreated toxic chemicals into a river is not only unacceptable, it is unthinkable.

What is my generation leaving to my daughter’s generation?  What is our legacy?  Will we maintain our commitment to clean water?  I hope so.  Will we turn back the clock to the “good old days,” as some in Congress suggest, when corporations could do as they pleased to our water and air?  Will we forget the lessons of the past, so painfully learned?  We damn well better not.  That’s why I work at American Rivers.