STRETCHES of the Blackstone River in central Massachusetts weave
through areas of wilderness where the absence of houses and other
man-made structures makes it seem like an undisturbed river far
But the serene and idyllic setting masks the pollution below the
surface and lodged in the sediment along its banks. The
46-mile-long Blackstone, whose headwaters begin in Worcester,
Mass., receives effluent from the city's waste-water treatment
plants. Oil from cars and other sources of urban runoff seep into
the water. The river, which used to be lined with textile mills
during the Industrial Revolution, is still contaminated from the
dyes used at that time.
"Worcester's the bathtub, and the river's the drain, so as
Worcester washes itself in the bathtub everything goes into the
river," says Russell Cohen, rivers advocate for the Massachusetts
Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
While restoration efforts have improved the Blackstone
significantly, it "never really has a chance to be clean because
right in the very beginning of the river is where Worcester is, and
the pollution is carried downstream."
Twenty-four years ago, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland became
the symbol of severely polluted rivers when it caught fire. Over
the years, industries and municipalities had openly dumped
chemicals, raw sewage, and other wastes into the country's waters.
When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 the immediate mandate
was to remove this visible goo from the water by stopping
point-source pollution - pollution that can be traced to a specific
source such as a pipe spewing factory waste. Today much of the
point-source pollution has been addressed, and many rivers no
longer are topped with chemical foam or run red with dyes, though
past contamination from dyes still affects even relatively clean
waterways such as the Sudbury River just west of Boston. (see
BUT river advocates say rivers across the United States like the
Blackstone in Massachusetts are now threatened with pollution that
has become more subtle and insidious.
"The rivers are apparently cleaner, but it's our viewpoint that
river ecosystems are declining pretty badly," says Kevin Coyle,
president of American Rivers, a river-conservation organization in
Washington, D.C. Mr. Coyle says much of this degradation is caused
by nonpoint-source pollution, which has become the leading source
of pollution into the nation's water bodies.
Nonpoint-source pollution is loosely defined as runoff from
farms, city streets, and industry. When it rains, fertilizers,
chemicals, pesticides, oil from cars, and other wastes are washed
into rivers and streams.
The effects are slow but cumulative, Mr. Cohen says. The runoff
feeds rivers with too many nutrients, which lead to algal blooms.
The blooms use up most of the oxygen, so other organisms can no
Mr. Coyle says rivers then become devoid of life, even though
they may look clean. "The river ecosystems, ... the sensitive
little critters that live in the streambeds are endangered, and
until we can figure out how to deal with nonpoint pollution, we're
not really going to save the rivers," he says. …