Wednesday, April 22, marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The American Waterways Operators (AWO) partnered with RiverWorks Discovery, an outreach program of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and the National Rivers Hall of Fame, “to highlight 50 years of creative, ambitious and innovative efforts to improve our shared environment,” AWO said.
This year’s Earth Day is a good time to reflect on the progress our rivers and waterways have made in the 50 years since Earth Day was established in 1970.
The year before, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, “caught fire” when sparks from a passing railroad ignited oily waste floating on the surface. It was the 13th time that had happened and wasn’t even the worst incident, but it caught the nation’s imagination. It did prove to be the last such incident, as images of the burning river helped spark a nationwide awakening to the plight of our rivers and environment. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in the same year as the first Earth Day. The Clean Water Act of 1972 quickly followed.
In the years since, our rivers and waterways have become dramatically cleaner, although more remains to be done. In 2012, a “State of the River” report noted of the Mississippi River, “While the challenges we face are complex and daunting, the river today is healthier thanks to the actions of previous generations. The return of abundant wildlife to a once-troubled river is evidence that restoring the Mississippi is possible through shared commitment and decisive public action. We remain hopeful that with strong leadership and vocal support from river lovers across our state and nation, we too can pass a cleaner, healthier and more vibrant Mississippi River on to future generations.”
The barge industry has been in the forefront of those efforts, providing major sponsorships and support, for instance, to Chad Pregracke’s Living Lands & Waters and its success in recruiting volunteers to collect and remove more than 10 million pounds of solid waste and debris from our rivers.
AWO noted, “Our members have a long and deep commitment to environmental protection and take their role as stewards of America’s waterways seriously.”