Towns and cities with rivers running through or by them are few and far between on the American landscape.

If you are lucky and live in a river town or city, be grateful. These places are growing in population and popularity because of their location. This is true of my hometown of Phenix City, which is located on the Chattahoochee River, across from Columbus, Ga. But Auburn folks know this. 

Something really good is happening in the bi-city area. Both towns, especially Columbus, are experiencing strong growth in businesses that want to locate near our major waterway.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the Chattahoochee River was filled with pollution and human waste. It was beyond filthy. The river was deemed a public health hazard, with “beware, swim or fish at your own risk” warning signs.

Today, people from outside the river cities travel here because of the exciting outdoor activities available to them both in and near the river.

There’s whitewater rafting on the rapids, a zip line that crosses the river, walking paths and trails along its banks. Plus, there are playgrounds for kids and toddlers and plenty of benches for regular folks to sit and watch the more adventurous enjoy the water. 

Up until recently, this was not the case. There was a time, not that long ago, when the river was polluted with human waste, garbage, rusting appliances and abandoned autos. Yes, worn-out cars just pushed into the water. The river was not a place to visit.

The same was happening in other cities near their polluted waterways, and they were slowly dying. At one point, in Columbus, there were just a few wig and secondhand shops on Broadway. It was like a deserted town with no one around like we used to see in the old western movies. 

People stayed far away from rivers and waterways, which had become nasty and ugly dumping areas. And the water itself was hazardous to health. 

America was adrift in bad water. But Richard Nixon — yes, old “Tricky Dick” — changed that dangerous course. His environmental legislation helped turn polluted and dying rivers into sparkling, healthy streams.  

Nixon’s fresh water legislation sailed through a receptive Congress. Today, his groundbreaking environmental bills are regarded as towering legislative and public health achievements.

All the states in the U.S. today enjoy cleaner water, thanks to Nixon. Because he was a president who had to resign in disgrace — and he deserved what he got — many people pushed aside his great environmental achievements.  

As part of his environmental legislation, Nixon made federal funding available to states and cities to clean up their polluted water and air. States jumped on the federal offering as fast as they could.

And today many fair-minded historians now rate Nixon as perhaps our greatest environmental president. 

Though he was a conservative politician, many liberal legislators in the House and Senate backed his environmental legislation. They knew Nixon was doing the right thing at the right time.

After Congress approved his sweeping environmental bills, cities on waterways quickly began using federally backed money to construct sewage treatment plants that safely removed human waste, factory dyes and chemicals from the water, which was then released back into the river. 

These water treatment facilities changed the course of our country. We were heading over a nasty waterfall, and Nixon, like a hero in a silent movie, saved the day. Standards of living went up, and illnesses and deaths began declining. 

Nixon’s environmental legislation provided the first big step to cleaning up pollution, including our precious air. But we still have a way to go with clean air. Since Nixon, though, Congress has approved other environmental bills to make life safer and better for all of us and other species. 

Would these bills have passed if not for Nixon? Who knows? I know I’ve written and said a lot of bad things about the president, but Nixon was forward-thinking and right in his efforts to clean up our water and air.

In retrospect, Nixon was ahead of his time. Consequently, he could go down in history as our great environmental president, the first to make cleaning up our air and water the nation’s top priority.

Just think of the polluted mess we would be in today if not for Nixon. He was a leader who was despised and reviled by the very people he sought to protect from filthy water and polluted air — and, in actuality, from horrible sickness and early death. 

Ralph Morris is a retired newspaperman who lives near Auburn. His email address is r.morris@ctvea.net.

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