I was just a kid 50 years ago on the first Earth Day in 1970. A lot has changed since then, both in the Potomac watershed, and more broadly, for our planet. We find ourselves facing even more dire long-term ecological consequences than the founders of Earth Day did half a century ago as the worst symptoms of climate change loom over us. Climate change is not just a problem of polar ice caps melting or low lying coastal areas being inundated by sea level rise. It affects the health of our rivers, the flora and fauna of our landscapes, and the safety and security of our region. And as we have seen with Covid-19, the world is getting more connected all the time, and we can all help to implement solutions that go beyond the individual actions each of us takes. So it is more important than ever to harness the energy that the inaugural Earth Day event captured. The driving idea behind this movement was to mobilize large masses of people and unite them behind a common cause of enacting positive change for the planet and all of its inhabitants. An important aspect of growing this movement is for citizens to feel a strong connection to their natural environment, and over the years the Potomac River has played a very important role in that. Five years before the first Earth Day, in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Water Quality Act. He recognized the symbolic importance of using the Potomac as a model to inspire further restoration efforts in urban rivers across the country, stating:
“We are going to begin right here in Washington with the Potomac River. Two hundred years ago George Washington used to stand on his lawn down here at Mount Vernon and look on a river that was clean and sweet and pure. In our own century, President Theodore Roosevelt used to go swimming in the Potomac. But today the Potomac is a river of decaying sewage and rotten algae. Today all the swimmers are gone; they have been driven from its banks. … I pledge to you that we are going to reopen this Potomac for swimming by 1975.”
President Johnson was a little optimistic in predicting that the Potomac would be swimmable by 1975, but since he made that promise, the Potomac has undergone a drastic transformation and now, 50 years after the first Earth Day, the Potomac is a focal point for local outdoor recreation. This increase in public use and enjoyment of the river goes hand in hand with a booming waterfront economy and increased recognition of the Potomac as a valuable resource to protect.
The importance of public use of the Potomac has been a theme of Earth Days in the past: In 1996, there was a large flood that wiped out sections of the C&O Canal towpath and deposited large pieces of debris in the path. There was an outpouring of public support in the form of volunteers for hands-on repairs and cleanup as well as donations to the National Park Service. Later that year, on Earth Day, President Clinton and Vice President Gore went to Great Falls and helped clear debris from the towpath. During this cleanup, Clinton remarked that there had been a “remarkable resurgence in support for clean air, for clean water,… for standing up for our national parks that has … come from … the citizens who … have given America back its soul, its conscience, and its commitment to the environment.”
As we celebrate this year’s historic 50th Earth Day, let’s reflect on how we as citizens of the world can reaffirm this commitment to the environment and, in particular to President Johnson’s vision of a Swimmable Potomac. President Johnson didn’t live to see his vision, but you and I (and our children and grandchildren) can if we make it happen. That’s the promise of Earth Day that only we have the power to harness.