You probably didn't hear about the Rally for Clean Water that took place in Washington this weekend. A bunch of nice people gathering on Capitol Hill to offer informed, impassioned views on environmental policy doesn't make for front page news in Canada.
You should know about the rally, though -- it's a rally for you and for me and for people who need clean water to survive. Which is, basically, everybody.
Here's what I know: I know that about 40 years ago North Americans awakened to the fact that decades of unrelenting industrialization were poisoning our communities. The Cuyahoga River caught on fire. So did the Don River in Toronto. Fish were dying en masse all over North America.
People from all walks of life called for change. Twenty-million Americans participated in the first Earth Day activities in 1970, the largest public demonstration in U.S. history. Shortly after, the U.S. created the Clean Water Act. Ontario created the Ontario Water Resources Act. Canada beefed up its Fisheries Act. Our two countries signed an agreement to protect the Great Lakes.
With the introduction of environmental laws, policies, and programs, North American waterways started coming back to life. Forty years ago, only one-third of US waters were safe for swimming or fishing; today, that figure is closer to 65 per cent. Those statistics mirror what we have seen in many Canadian communities -- many waterways are cleaner than they were in the past, but most communities still face serious environmental challenges.
Last weekend's Rally for Clean Water celebrates 40 years of environmental law. It also draws attention to the rapidly declining interest in clean water American and Canadian officials have shown in recent years. Communities in Appalachia have been denied traditional Clean Water Act-type protections in order to facilitate mountaintop coal mining, a devastating practice that some claim leaves nearby residents 50 percent more likely to die of cancer and 42 percent more likely to be born with birth defects as compared with other people in Appalachia.
Meanwhile, the Government of Canada rewrote environmental assessment and fisheries protection laws this summer, cancelling independent reviews of 3,000 different projects across the country. It feels like we're taking for granted the successes of the 1970s and 1980s, naively thinking we can ease up on environmental protection now that things are getting better.
The people rallying on Capitol Hill this weekend are rallying for you and me -- Canadians and Americans alike. We did a lot of damage to our waterways in the 20th Century. We continue to do a lot of damage to our waterways in the 21st Century. The voices behind the Rally for Clean Water are telling us that now is not the time to ease up. "Better" does not mean "good," they remind us. There is still more work to do.
How to get involved:
Krystyn Tully is Vice President of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and co-creator of the Waterkeeper Swim Guide and Drink Guide apps. Learn more at www.waterkeeper.ca.