National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
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Morgantown, WV

Until Next Time... Earth Day Ruminations

By Mark Kemp-RyeOn Tap Editor

Growing up in the 1970s, I can vividly recall the state of the environment back then: the smoky cities, the littered highways, the polluted waterways.

The river in my hometown was sepia-colored, most days, and the surrounding streams were often an odd orange color, the result of acid-mine drainage and raw sewage. Odd, to me as a youngster, because I had learned that water was supposed to have a bluish tint. And I had seen water other places that had that more traditional hue.

Sometimes at night, my pals and I would go fishing on the river. Our primary purpose, if truth be told, was to guzzle a lot of cheap beer, but at least a few of us would have a line in on these nocturnal adventures. Occasionally we would hook a catfish—the only known fauna inhabiting the river at that time. Catfish are amazing in their ability to live in fairly toxic environments and it was with a strange respect that I would look into their dull eyes and cast them back into those foul waters.

I grew up in Appalachia but the situation I describe will likely be familiar to many of you. Remember, by the ‘70s we had so polluted our waters that the Great Lakes were considered dead and the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland actually caught fire!

Thirty years later, I work for an organization involved with water and wastewater issues in an office that looks out on the same river I fished as a teen. Sometimes I gaze out and marvel at the incredible transformation that it has undergone. Except after heavy rains, it is now a blue-green color.

I no longer fish, but my angler friends tell me that there are a number of different species in the river, including bass. And, I no longer drink beer, but I have been known to take a walk along the old railroad tracks—now converted to a rail-trail—and am always pleased to see boaters and families and ducks.

On April 22nd, we celebrate Earth Day. As this occasion approaches, I find myself asking: How did the amazing transformation of our environment, generally, and our water, specifically, take place? The first answer may be found in the growth of the environmental movement in the 1960s and the culmination of those struggles in the first Earth Day in 1970. As one of the founders, James Farmer, so eloquently stated, “We all have a stake—equally. Because if we do not save the environment and save the Earth, then whatever we do in civil rights or in a war against poverty will be of no meaning, because then we will have the equality of extinction and the brotherhood of the grave.”

The next step, of course, was social and political action. State and local governments, community groups, and concerned citizens all made vital contributions to improving our environment. And even though the federal government is a favorite target, we shouldn’t forget that they have developed many important programs over the years. Sweep-ing environmental legislation was enacted during the 1970s—including the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974)—that directly led to lower pollution levels and better water. We hear a lot about working together, and these efforts were a stellar example of teamwork.

On Tap Editor Mark Kemp-Rye lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with his wife, Laura, and three children, Adrienne, Maxwell, and Josephine.

On behalf of the National Environmental Services Center, allow me to extend a big thank you to all those who have worked for the betterment of the environment over the years. In honor of Earth Day, I think I’ll pack a picnic basket, grab my family, and head down to that old river for dinner. Three decades ago you’d have called me insane for that statement. Today, you might very well be tempted to join me.