Turning the Kalamazoo from a river
choked by pollution to one with clean, clear waters
By James Prichard
ALLEGAN, Michigan - The Kalamazoo River has almost always
been a part of W. J. Love's life.
Some stretches are widely considered among Michigan's
most scenic waterways. Plants and animals abound and the
water runs clear. It's not unusual to see herons, swans,
turtles, grouse, pheasant, or even eagles.
But it hasn't always been that way. When the 71-year-old
Love was a boy, the river was filthy, turned a whitish-brown
color by upstream paper mills in and around Kalamazoo.
He didn't dare eat the bass, carp, and salmon that he
caught, though he can't attest to the same for some of
his childhood fishing buddies.
As for the canoe trips he often took as a young man in
the early 1960s, he and his companions had one, simple
rule: "We were sure whenever we put in or put out
that we didn't put our feet into the water."
The river is much cleaner now, mostly because of stricter
federal guidelines for industrial discharges and wastewater
treatment enacted in the late 1960s and 1970s. But it
is by no means pollution-free.
Health officials have advised against eating fish caught
in the river since 1976. Toxic chemicals discharged a
half-century ago still contaminate the bed, banks, and
The federal government says factories are responsible
for tens of thousands of pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls,
or PCBs, that contaminate sediment starting from the Morrow
Lake Dam near Galesburg, just east of Kalamazoo, to the
river mouth at Lake Michigan in Saugatuck.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is developing
a cleanup plan, though the problems have been well-documented
since the 1950s.
The Kalamazoo River gained national attention when the
Oct. 5, 1953, issue of Life magazine ran a photograph
of a massive fish kill on a creek that empties into the
river where the Allegan Dam forms Lake Allegan. The photo
caption read, "Four Acres of Carp Corpses on the
Paper companies were blamed for dumping excessive amounts
of organic waste into the river. The discharges sapped
the stream of oxygen and drove the carp up the tributary,
Dumont Creek, where they became trapped and died.
The resulting outcry brought about the earliest efforts
to clean the Kalamazoo, although it would not begin in
earnest until the mid-1960s.
"The fumes from the river and the dead fish, in
some cases, peeled the paint right off the houses there,"
said John Pahl, the official historian of Allegan and
Love, a retired engineering consultant from Allegan Township,
says he was serving a two-year hitch in the Navy in the
mid-1950s when a sulfuric acid spill in the river turned
his parents' Allegan home from white to yellow.
He also recalls, as a youth, seeing foamy discharges
"maybe the size of automobiles" floating downstream
and watching polluted plumes empty into Lake Michigan.
"The river, in the past, was just a dumping place,"
says Lisa Sutterfield, Allegan's city manager.
Within the past two decades, her city of 5,000 has beautified
its downtown riverfront by constructing a boardwalk and
installing fountains in the river. Not all the longtime
residents are impressed.
"The people who have lived here all their lives
- those who are 40-ish or 50-ish - and grew up with the
river stinking and contaminated, sometimes they still
consider it that way," although their perceptions
may finally be changing, said Sutterfield, who is 35 and
has lived in Allegan for eight years. "But there
are people who've only been here the last 15 or 20 years
who think it is a real asset to the city."
PCBs pose the biggest threat to wildlife along the river
and to people who - against the advice of state government
- eat fish taken from the waters downstream from the city
Love simply wants the river cleaned up enough for the
state to remove the fish advisories.
"I'd like to see the river come back to being a
good stream to fish out of," he said. "I would
like to go back and fish the thing again if it were clean."