Book shows value of Great Lakes restoration

One of John Hartig’s most poignant childhood memories is of a day in 1969, when he looked out the window of his parent’s suburban Detroit home and saw the unimaginable: The Rouge River was ablaze.

“I could see from my house that the river was on fire,” Hartig said. “I couldn’t understand why.”

It was only fitting that Hartig would devote his career to improving Great Lakes water quality and eventually write a book about four rivers in the region that caught fire.

John Hartig

Hartig’s book, “Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught on Fire,” was released earlier this year. It explores the causes and consequences of blazes on four Great Lakes rivers: The Buffalo, Chicago, Cuyahoga and Rouge rivers.

Hartig wrote from personal and professional experience: In addition to growing up near the lakes, he has spent 30 years studying the Great Lakes as a limnologist. He has written or co-authored more than 100 publications about the lakes and currently manages the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge, along the Detroit River.

Although “Burning Rivers” recounts some of America’s worst environmental assaults, it delivers a message of hope.

“I thought it was important for people to know just how much has been accomplished since the worst of days, celebrate that and then explore what remains to be done for these rivers,” Hartig said. “The recovery of these rivers has been pretty amazing.”

His book dispels is the widely held belief that that the Cuyahoga River, in Cleveland, was the only Great Lakes river to catch fire in the 1960s. The Buffalo and Rouge also ignited in the ’60s; the Chicago River repeatedly caught fire a century ago.

The lack of strong environmental regulations and America’s growth as an industrial superpower took a devastating toll on rivers. Nowhere was the abuse more acute than in the Great Lakes region, where abundant water helped build the implements of a modern society and then absorbed the toxic leftovers.

By the 1960s, sections of the Buffalo River were devoid of fish. Parts of the Rouge River had no oxygen, a condition that caused the river to release noxious hydrogen sulfide gas into the air.

“Even carp couldn’t live in the Rouge,” Hartig said.

Today, all four rivers support multiple species of fish, mammals and birds.

Despite dramatic improvements in all four rivers, the job is far from complete: Toxic sediments remain a serious problem; storm water runoff from paved areas carries huge quantities of filth to the rivers; many species of fish are contaminated with industrial toxins; and sewer overflows routinely foul waterways with untreated human and industrial waste.

Hartig said programs like the Great Lakes Legacy Act and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative have greatly accelerated efforts to restore the lakes and their connecting waters. But in an era of government budget cuts, he said community groups, nonprofit organizations and universities must be vigilant to ensure that Great Lakes restoration programs don’t fall by the wayside.

Efforts to restore the Great Lakes are far from complete and much work remains to make the Rouge, Chicago, Cuyahoga and Buffalo rivers fishable, swimmable and drinkable at all times.

Still, Hartig said the recovery of those rivers over the past four decades should provide hope for others.

“If these four rivers can be revived and made into community assets, there is hope for all rivers and all people working to restore them,” he said.