Documentary Film "Fate of a River: Apathy or Action"

Showing What Volunteers Can Do for the Environment

The Junior League of Toledo

Issue Area(s): environment

Metric of Success (if quantifiable/available):  Junior League of Toledo members were among those offering testimony on Capitol Hill in the hearings that led to the Clean Water Act of 1972. The program served a model for other environmental initiatives that followed.


Nearly five decades ago, the Junior League of Toledo mobilized to address the chemical pollution fouling the Maumee River, a key tributary of Lake Erie. JLT’s public awareness campaign culminated in the production and release in 1965 of the documentary “Fate of a River: Apathy or Action,” which focused attention on the need for regulatory oversight of waste disposal not just in Ohio, but throughout the nation. The success of JLT’s campaign led to an invitation to testify in front of a Congressional committee debating the merits of the Clean Water Act, which was enacted in 1972 to address environmental problems like the Maumee River.

Community partners

  • Toledo PBS affiliate WGTE
  • Other community partners

How it works

A breakthrough for its time, the 30-minute film debuted just three years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental work, Silent Spring, and depicted in elaborate detail the foaming detergents, raw sewage, and industrial discharge from nearby factories that were fouling the Maumee River, an important Great Lakes watershed that encompasses four thousand miles of streams and drains four million acres of land in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. The movie captured algae-laden water filled with gasping fish that was typical for severe water pollution in an area that was home to well over a million people. Polluted to black, the Maumee and its network of tributaries were likened by the film’s narrator to a “dead sewer burdened with the debris of a dozen cities” that rendered Lake Erie unsafe for swimming and its beaches hardened and discolored. JLT partnered with local PBS affiliate WGTE in filming and narrating the documentary.  

What’s the impact?

Shown by JLT volunteers at libraries and in schools, to Rotary clubs, women’s groups, bridge and garden clubs, and community boards throughout the region, the film ultimately reached some 70,000 people. A scenic byway was created along the river; nesting eagles returned after a 30-year absence; fishing was restored in some areas; and wastewater treatment facilities were built by manufacturers and municipalities.