Fifty years ago today, around noon on June 22, 1969, parts of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River burst into flames when sparks from a passing train ignited oil, debris and other pollution on the river’s surface.
Almost a century before that our own Chicago River also caught fire at least twice. The two blazes, on July 16, 1888, and on April 18, 1899, turned into spectator activities, with “fire watchers” lining up to see bright orange flames leap into the sky like watching Fourth of July fireworks.
These and other highly visible events like piles of dead algae and alewives on our beaches, were often kindling for policy reform. The Cuyahoga fire is often credited with prompting Congress to pass the modern Clean Water Act. Also, less than a year after the 1888 Chicago River fire, the Illinois Legislature approved a law that led to the creation of today’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.
But it shouldn’t take highly visible, catastrophic events, like rivers catching on fire, for us to act.
For example, mostly out of sight below ground, Illinois’ water infrastructure is among the oldest in the country. Much of it is falling apart. We could start a “blue fire” by boosting blue-collar jobs to save our blue waterways. With leadership from some of our top Chicago area legislators, Senate Bill 2146 and House Bill 3349 were both passed in Springfield last month to create a Clean Water Workforce Pipeline Program. Once fully implemented, the program will provide training and resources for clean water jobs to revitalize infrastructure. After all, clean water doesn’t just happen by itself. If we want to restore our waterways and protect our communities against drinking water threats like lead, we need trained professionals to help. And those trained professionals will have fair, living wages that flow back to the Illinois economy.
We also need to light a “green fire” by implementing more green infrastructure — that is, using land to act as a sponge to reduce flooding into our basements, and reduce wastewater overflows into the Chicago River system.
Green infrastructure isn’t just a win-win. It’s a win-times-eight, -nine or more. And, in addition to reduced flooding and overflows, it improves water quality, increases habitat, and enhances open space. Green infrastructure is a growing practice that provides jobs and job training that can’t be outsourced to other countries because they require work locally. Directing more green infrastructure funding toward our most underserved communities — which often are most likely to flood — also helps relieve social inequities by creating open space for community gardening to reduce food deserts. By bringing back more green to our land, we bring back more green to our pocketbooks and more blue to our waterways.
We also need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, bringing back more blue to our skies. Our Great Lakes are among the fastest warming in the world. Yet our Midwestern winters are more vortex-prone than ever. Why? Because of our appetite for burning fossil fuels. As Cook County residents, we pay $40 million annually in energy bills through the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. That means we are paying to pollute our air, which warms our waterways and contributes to more intense rainstorms, like we had last month, the wettest May on record. It’s time to turn more waste from our facilities into energy, increase renewable energy, and conserve more energy so we can drive down energy costs over time.
That’ll also reduce impacts from intense storms on our most vulnerable communities. Though the White House has abandoned its responsibility for meeting greenhouse gas reduction goals under the Paris Agreement, the district must continue to act on behalf of public health and future generations.
Thankfully, our rivers don’t ignite any more. That shouldn’t stop us, though, from lighting a fire under our collective efforts to protect the water we all care about. That way, in another 50 years, our children and their children can celebrate clean water more than commemorating water that once burned.
Cameron Davis is a commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.