A legacy of lethargy, denial and delay in cleaning up our polluted waterways. "Swim at your own risk."
It’s mid-July, peak summer in the northern hemisphere.
That means outdoor activities galore which include swimming, not only in properly sanitized pools, but lakes and rivers which aren’t sanitized at all and in fact may well be polluted.
I read two articles recently related to water quality and swimming in those waterways. Both with negative or at least potentially negative outcomes.
In London, Financial Times columnist and doting “Mum,” Juliet Riddell, chronicled how a large group of 6th graders became ill after swimming in a river while on a rite of passage camping trip. Some of the chaperoning parents with presumably stronger immune systems became ill too. The word spread from parent to parent followed by internet searches on the water quality of the river. The results revealed that it’s prone to “high levels of E. coli and frequent sewage spills.”
Journalist and parent Riddell started researching the water quality of rivers in general in the U.K. and found that only 14 percent of them are in “good” ecological status and there is no river in England that is free from chemicals. Where there’s smoke there’s fire and Riddell also found that there have been 300,000 discharges to U.K. rivers and they are mostly illegal.
Riddell’s conclusion is that the parents, writ large, “have messed with nature so much that it’s making (the children) ill,” and the children will be left with cleaning up the ecological mess when they reach adulthood.
Riddell closed her vignette saying that the campsite managers have now posted cautionary “swim at your own risk" signs. Too little, too late for the 6th graders who became sick.
Then comes the July 4th long weekend where people flock to Chicago’s beaches that stretch from the south side to the northern suburbs like Evanston. And the “weekend” was particularly long this year with the 4th being on a Tuesday.
But the party was spoiled when a rain deluge hit the city on Sunday, July 2nd. Depending on where you live, you received 3 to 10 inches of rain on that Sunday. For perspective, Chicago’s average July rainfall for the whole month of July is 3 inches.
Greater Chicago’s sewage systems were overloaded and the state agency that manages them was forced to open the gates to Lake Michigan. Which meant that over one billion gallons of sewage, in various forms to be polite, was released to the lake that supplies drinking water to millions and is the source of water recreation for the teeming July 4th celebrators who hit the beaches.
The result is that while many of the beaches were technically open, “swimming advisories” were posted. As with the U.K. the risk was exposure to E. coli which can bring on nausea and worse that children are especially vulnerable to.
A quick internet search revealed beach advisories or closings at Presque Isle and Maumee Bay state parks on Lake Erie and in June for Belle Isle in the Detroit River. Authorities reported that swimmers basically ignored the warnings at Belle Isle.
Side note, the Detroit River still contains 3.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment left from the peak industrial era of the 1950’s. Hardly a welcoming statistic for those who want to wade in the water or eat the fish.
The U.K. polluted river story and the swimming advisories for Chicago, Detroit and Lake Erie beaches come on the heels of me reading noted water scientist Peter Gleick’s new book, The Three Ages of Water: Prehistoric Past, Imperiled Present, and a Hope for the Future.
A significant portion of the book is devoted to our development over centuries of sanitary water systems that prevent widespread disease. Gleick attributes our success in the U.S. to “the swift acceleration of technological innovation at the beginning of the twentieth century.” That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the sanitary innovations developed in countries like the U.S. and the U.K., for the purposes of this commentary, aren’t widespread in developing countries.
And we in the “richer countries”, Gleick writes, have failed “to adequately operate and maintain existing drinking water infrastructure or upgrade and improve it.”
We turn on the tap and clean drinking water flows from it. We flush the toilet and, poof, our waste disappears to some place that we don’t know or care much about. It’s out of sight, out of mind syndrome. If we can’t see it doesn’t exist and isn’t a threat, until it is when the waste ends up in the lake where we’d like to swim.
Growing up in a Detroit suburb decades ago my dad often fished in the Detroit River. But on the Canadian side because as he told me, the U.S. side was too polluted. It still is. And Lake Erie’s beaches were our go to beaches as they were only a 20 minute drive away. Until my parents determined they were too polluted.
To Gleick’s point, we the “richer” folks have been backsliding when it comes to protecting our precious wealth of water.
And paraphrasing columnist Riddel in the U.K., we are again leaving the job of cleaning up our polluted waterways to our children.
Chicago-based environmental journalist