America's Sewage System and the Price of Optimism

Bettmann / CORBIS

March 11, 1970: Views of the Cuyahoga River shown here, the river is a constant fire hazard because of quantities of oil deposited in it by numerous industries in the Cleveland area.

ALMOST every great city has a river. The poetic notion is that flowing water brings commerce, delights the eye, and cools the summer heat. But there is a more prosaic reason for the close affinity of cities and rivers. They serve as convenient, free sewers.

The Potomac reaches the nation's capital as a pleasant stream, and leaves it stinking from the 240 million gallons of wastes that are flushed into it daily. Among other horrors, while Omaha's meat packers fill the Missouri River with animal grease balls as big as oranges, St. Louis takes...

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