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Five ways we saved the world (or at least a corner of it)

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Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, April 20, 2014, 10:18 PM -

Earth Action Week kicks off today, ushering in seven days of efforts large and small to help our environment.

People can pitch in by pledging to do one or two things to reduce their impact on our planet, but others can just as well ask: What difference can I make?

So we've put together a list of five instances where people solved huge environmental problems. And by huge, we mean....

Cleveland's river used to catch fire sometimes

You read that right: Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River used to be so choked with the chemicals and pollution of more than a century of industrial activity that it actually caught on fire in June 1969. The flames caused $100,000 in damage to two railway bridges.

We can’t imagine what it would be like to actually WORK on the banks of such a polluted channel of waste, but the guy in the video below does a pretty good job of painting a picture.

And it wasn’t even remotely the worst fire on the river. Since 1868, the river caught fire 13 times. One blaze in 1952 caused $1.3 million in damage. Another one killed five people in 1912 - People actually died because of how polluted this river was.

The 1969 fire wasn’t the largest, costliest, or deadliest, but it came at a time when the United States was becoming more pollution-conscious. It galvanized activists and lawmakers into action that was already a long time coming by then. The U.S. Environmental Protection Act was passed the next year, along with the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Since then, something like $3.5 billion has been poured into restoring the river, through purification efforts and better sewage and wastewater management.

It’s mostly worked. There hasn’t been another fire since 1969, and the Cuyahoga River is now home to around 60 fish species.

Still, a century of unrestrained pollution has a tendency to linger. As late as this year, there was a minor spat over a plan to deposit material dredged to keep the river navigable into Lake Erie. Proponents of the plan had to back down over concerns the soil is still too contaminated with carcinogenic materials.

So catastrophic environmental disasters absolutely CAN be reversed. It just takes a very long time.

Los Angeles used to be choked in poisonous fog

Looking at the picture below, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s a slightly dreamy shot of downtown London back the day, draped with the city’s famously atmospheric fog.

Image: UCLA library

Image: UCLA library

[Image license]

The people actually IN the shot would have preferred that for sure. It’s actually a picture of Los Angeles in the 1950s, and that miasma isn’t fog. It’s enough pollution to reduce visibility down to three blocks.

People complain about the air quality in Los Angeles, but older folks know it used to be WAY worse.

Despite its seaside location, Los Angeles sits in a depression, without much in the way of winds, so if there’s pollution, it tends to build up. And the first time that crazy smog turned up, one not-so-fine June day in 1943, people were choking on it. Many thought the Japanese were attacking them with chemical weapons.

It wasn’t even the first time. One episode in 1903 was bad enough to be mistaken for a solar eclipse. What the 1943 occurrence did was galvanize city leaders to action, to at least set out to find out the cause.

Image: UCLA Library

Image: UCLA Library

[Image license]

It took a long time to put their collective finger on it, but it turned out … well, it was pretty much everything from increasing industrial activity, to open-air trash fires, to the increasing numbers of cars on the roads of this, one of the U.S.’ fastest growing cities.

By the 1960s, the city was seeing 200 days a year of dangerous smog levels … but although it took a long time, authorities conquered the miasma, through the mighty power of … increased air quality regulations, better rapid transit, tailpipe emission standards, the works.

Doesn’t sound sexy, and it took decades, but it worked. By 1995, ozone levels were a third of what they were in 1955, and as recently as the past few years, ozone levels are still being kept at bay.

As heartwarming as that is, let's temper it with a look at how the city itself could be an enemy, just by being thirsty.

Los Angeles almost drinks a major lake dry

It took a 16-year court battle, but activists managed to partially reverse the immense ecological damage to California’s Mono Lake, a highly unique ecosystem.

The high lake is characterized by funky “Tufa” towers, calcium deposits that formed underwater but have become more and more visible as the lake levels dropped.

Image: Brocken Inaglory

Image: Brocken Inaglory

And it was quite the drop. The trouble started when the city of Los Angeles diverted some of the streams that fed the lake back in 1941, to feed the ballooning population of what would soon become the United States’ second largest city metropolis.

By 1995, lake levels had fallen by 12 m, and the water doubled in salinity. The lower water table devastated the surrounding ecosystem, which served as a haven for birds feeding on brine shrimp and alkali flies, their own numbers threatened due to increased salty water.

In 1978, activists and conservationists started the fight to force Los Angeles to cut down the amount of water it took from the lake’s feeder streams. It paid off in 1994, when authorities ordered a partial halt to the diversions to allow lake levels to rise 5 m.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

That’s won’t be nearly enough to reverse the damage, but by 2008, several species of bird had already made a recovery. Given how thorough the lake’s devastation must have seemed, we’ll call that a win.

NEXT PAGE: Singapore turns an island into a landfill, and it totally worked


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