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What Does a Clean St. Lawrence Mean to You?

“Please remember to dump your garbage far enough from shore so it does not wash back onto the shores of Grenell.” I found that mimeographed paper in the 1960s folder of the Grenell Island Improvement Association archives. It was a copy of a flyer, which was posted in the Community House and Grenell Island Store. It was a shocking reminder of how drastically our attitudes toward the environment have changed in the past 50 years.

When I arrived on the island in the mid-1970s, it was common practice, particularly with the older generation, to go for a nightly boat ride after dinner specifically to dump the day’s garbage. I know my husband’s grandfather would do that. Once away from the shores of Grenell, and hopefully out of sight of prying eyes, he would lower a small brown paper bag filled with coffee grounds and banana peels and other refuse of the day weighted down with a rock into the water. 

Others thought nothing of sinking tin cans or bottles a safe distance from shore. As odious as it sounds today, coffee grounds and tin cans were the least of our worries. For years, pipes from septic systems ran straight into the river. Industries on the shores of the Great Lakes dumped even more frightful things into the world’s largest fresh water system. When I was in junior high, Lake Erie was pronounced “dead.” It was believed that the shallowest of the Great Lakes was so polluted that it was beyond repair. Lake Erie flows into Lake Ontario and Lake Ontario flows into the St. Lawrence. So it wasn’t an isolated issue. It was all connected. All that pollution flowed down to the St. Lawrence, right past us and out to sea.

Grenell Islander, Gwen Smith, often wrote in her Thousand Island Sun Column about the unhealthy state of the river in the sixties: fish lying on their sides barely able to breathe, no minnows, no eel flies. She wrote in the late 1960s how people were afraid of getting fined for dumping their garbage on Tidd Island or dumping it elsewhere in the river and how disappointed the gulls seemed.

And then on October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act was signed into law. This landmark environmental law protects and maintains the integrity of our nation’s waterways—including the St. Lawrence. The Clean Water Act is the foundation for protecting clean water across the country. In 1978, Save the River was founded becoming the leading environmental advocate working to protect and preserve the Upper St. Lawrence River.


Many of us can see a vast difference in the water from the early 1970s until now. Water that was once murky and left fish gasping for breath is now clear and healthy.

But while the condition of our water has improved and Lake Erie is back from the dead, there are new threats to our beloved river. Our quest for clean water needs to be an ongoing one. For me on Grenell, it’s easy to look out my window at the St. Lawrence and see how important clean water is to me. It’s not just the water we swim, boat, and fish in…this is the water that we shower with, use to cook our pasta and make ice cubes to shake up a pitcher of MacDacs. It is an important and vital part of our everyday life.

By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island

Lynn McElfresh presents two articles this month.  This is the first of several articles she will present this winter in partnership with Save the River.  This month, Save the River, in honor of the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act and the 35th Anniversary of Save the River, asks you-- What does a clean St. Lawrence mean to you? Send Save The River your favorite photos from the summer (or winter) and a caption explaining why a clean St. Lawrence River matters to you. Submit photos and captions to Save the River at: by October 31st and Save the River will post selections to their website and Facebook.

  • Photo courtesy STR

    Photo courtesy STR

  • Photo by L. McElfresh

    Photo by L. McElfresh

  • Photo courtesy STR

    Photo courtesy STR

  • Photo by L. McElfresh

    Photo by L. McElfresh


Posted in: Nature, Sports
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Jack Patterson
Comment by: Jack Patterson ( )
Left at: 8:45 PM Monday, October 15, 2012
I have to disagree with you Lynne.

In my view the river has degraded one way or another, continuously since about the mid 1960's. I fear, we may now never be able to reverse this damage. But mostly I don't see us caring.

We are to eventually become the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and the like. And the water of the St Lawrence River may, will come, to eventually smell.

It is what our concerns should be about, however. There is no greater issue.

My involvement commenced about in the 1960's. Then we had phosphorous from soap detergents. I sent a sample of the water to the International Oceanographic Foundation. They said based upon my sample, our water was, 'changing'.

We CAN start- not do anymore damage. Simply stop doing what we a start. I see piecemeal efforts. Some truly wonderful.

There is the clean water act (1972). Some areas have seen improvement- certainly one of them being water clarity. I used to (personally) measure water clarity.

One lowers a round tin disk into the water until the disk is lost sight of. Paint the disk white. I used a six inch diameter disk.

Put a knot at each foot of line. Conduct the test annually at the same relative location; ensure day (date) and weather conditions match. I did this myself- on and off for maybe fifteen years (not consecutively).

Water clarity varied- between Sugar Island and Axeman Island in the Lake Fleet Group (using the above method), from as little as twelve feet over the period to as much as thirty two feet- the latter reading after the advent of zebra mussels.

We used to have the water tested for ecoli in Gananoque. Tap water (drawn from the river). One could get that done- then, quite easily and cheaply.

No one tests the water now that I know of- chemically (most needed) or manually. If someone is doing so I would like to hear their results.

The water is overloaded with nutrients...phosphorous, nitrogen and potash or potassium. The, of course, usual suspects. "Scott's" steroid for plants, say. All such come at us from every direction: farms, lawns, storm drains, septic name only a few that feed five great lakes and a vast drainage system.

I do not need a test to see the slime and weed at our swim dock- a metal ladder inserted in June (2012) is completely bedecked, shaggy with weed, etc., by August.

And I KNOW yours is similar.

We on Axeman are well off shore (almost three miles from the Canadian mainland) yet we had the blue green 'stinging' algae last summer.

I 'traced' a bubble that swimming kicked up. It refused to dissipate after drifting along perhaps twenty yards (which with my swimming alongside took 30 minutes of watching and breast stroking next to a bobble that wouldn't dissolve).

As a boy (have come to Axeman since 1938...) rocks were as clean/clear of weed in the water as out. If and where they weren't, one could see what the cause was directly- a waste pipe, industrial dumping, etc.

Thank you for initiating something on this. I look forward to more. I have watched much water go over this dam next to Axeman. I see no let up in the destruction of a once amazing and beautiful waterway.
Stephanie Weiss
Comment by: Stephanie Weiss ( )
Left at: 12:14 PM Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Thank you for your passion and devotion to the health of the St. Lawrence River. I've been working at Save The River for 14 years and while it's true some progress has been made, it's also true there is a lot more work to be done. Citizen involvement is critical, as you point out. FYI - we do test water every summer ( - one of the many ways our community is trying to make the River safer and healthier. Thanks for caring!
Jack Patterson
Comment by: Jack Patterson ( )
Left at: 9:22 PM Saturday, October 27, 2012
Thank you for your note. I read your water (ecoli) tests. I am happy to see such! Thank you for the link. Some current problems likely have originated in Kingston. Their growth has been terrific, in some ways, unfortunately. As I am sure you know there are no treatment facilities for storm overflow, etc. Mercury...a dump in days gone by- much industry. Are a-building (storm treatment) but Catarqui River can be not so nice. Is only nearby city- 125 plus thousand. So, gets 'picked on'... Likely even many others, in USA and Canada have trouble meeting already out-of-date standards. The vast drainage basin of the Great Lakes is principally in Canada, Minnesota, Michigan, say, and a swath around the southern border. Is VERY large and mostly to the north, so not so overpopulated and thus slowing the, what seems now (to me), inevitable. Some, perhaps, "You can't go home"; I have been a citizen of the St Lawrence many seasons, as I said. The eight year old knows where a record small mouth bass can be depended on to make a leisurely appearance, if, we sit still, wait. Too, I think of A L L the small mouth bass (we all mostly do, I believe) when the Poker Run boats pass. Likely then these bass, the 'draw' that made the modern era, are sitting and waiting (now) only over in Black Lake, elsewhere, from the St. Lawrence. I would. We aren't making good choices.