A lot can change when it comes to rivers

Nashua River, once dead and colorful, is now full of life

SIXTEEN YEARS BEFORE the passage of the revised Clean Water Act, 5-year-old Mark threw a rock into the Nashua River in Leominster, one of the 10 most polluted waterways in the United States, without letting go of it. My brother and I were eyewitnesses.

A child’s attraction to water has obvious hazards, from the thinkable to the unthinkable, from getting covered with mud to drowning. But the Nashua River in the 1950s posed an added threat that falls somewhere between those extremes.

From colonial times the Nashua had been a convenient place to dump anything, including garbage, human waste, and industrial effluvia, especially from upstream paper mills. Domestic waste decreased with modern plumbing systems, but industrial gunk persisted right up to the 1970s.

Let me tell you how the Nashua River looked in 1956 when Mark took his plunge. Usually, the paper mill waste was the color of an egg carton, and sometimes it was red or green or blue. I don’t mean sort of red or kind of green or blueish. I mean primary colors like the crayons in a Crayola box of eight. This beggars belief if you have never seen it. On our way to school, we would try to predict the color of the river that day. I always picked red and was right about 25 percent of the time.

The most famous polluted river in America was the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, which caught fire – caught fire, for heaven’s sake! – in 1952 and again in 1969, but we had the colors and variety, and they were magnificent until you gave any thought to why. The Nashua at that time could not support life, and everything was covered with paper sludge and slime in the color du jour.

Things began to change in the 1960s and ‘70s with the passage of state and federal laws to stop the dumping and clean up the waterways. Special government projects targeted the Nashua, and by the late 1970s there were signs that life might return to it. Today there are fish and turtles, muskrat and beaver, and scores of other lovely creatures in and around its waters. You can see blue heron along the Nashua, a sight beyond imagination when I lived in Leominster. And you can see it all from a canoe or a kayak.

I’m telling you this so you will appreciate how things can change. Things can get bad, then get fixed, and then un-fixed, and so get bad again; what can be done can be undone. Some want to repeal clean water laws, to let citizens and industry use the waterways as they wish under the theory that government should not interfere in the freedom to use the resources however seems best to us. This small government idea is as old as the Republic and, applied appropriately, a venerable one whose patron saint is Thomas Jefferson.

But limited government comes with a price that can be too high. Raise your hand if you favor a lifeless river that changes color every day or burns.

Meet the Author

Steve White

Essayist, Resident of Great Barrington
Mark survived that day. The Nashua River was its default color, so he emerged a grey, animated papier-mâché figure in the shape of a small boy. My mother had warned us not to cross through the trees on the other side of Mill Street. But the siren call of the water was irresistible. Accompanied by the papier-mâché boy, we could not claim that we weren’t at the river. But at least we didn’t catch fire.

Steve White lives in Great Barrington, where he is at work on a collection of personal essays.