Salmon In The Seine? C'est Possible

On a blustery spring Sunday, three Frenchmen hold long fishing poles that jut over an embankment on the Ile Saint-Louis, an island of 17th century Parisian houses behind Notre-Dame Cathedral. With the Seine swollen from rain, the fishing is excellent: Within half an hour, they land four perch and three gardons, small European river fish.

Strollers stop to watch. Nearly everyone wants to know whether the fish are safe to eat. Tired of the question, the fishermen mostly ignore it. But one of them, a retired electrician, finally blurts: "Of course I eat them. Five years I've fished right here and eaten everything I catch." He jerks his pole as a perch wriggles free. "What do people think this is," he grumbles, "a sewer?"

Those who think so aren't far wrong. The headwaters of the world's most romantic river are in northern Burgundy, among fields shimmering in May with yellow mustard. The Seine meanders through fieldstone villages and eventually enters Paris like a gentle country visitor agog at the city's splendid sights. Lingering as long as it can, the Seine fairly begs sun-lovers and picnickers to bask on its cobblestone banks. But as it curves through France's capital, this soulful river carries with it plastic bottles, beer cans, aircraft fuel, fertilizer residue, dead fish, wood scrap, and, occasionally, human excrement.

'STUPID THING.' Seven years ago, authorities decided to clean up the river that, for much of the world, sums up France. To do so, they're spending $1 billion on facilities over 10 years. By 1994, the Seine is supposed to be reasonably pure, and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac has vowed to prove it--by taking a swim. But the Seine is giving up its filth slowly. Experts now think it may take another decade--and an additional $6 billion--before the river truly sparkles. Chirac, who hopes to become President of France in 1995, had better postpone his swim until at least the year 2000, critics warn. "Otherwise, he would set a terrible example," says Didier Julia, a French member of parliament who belongs to Chirac's Gaullist party and is crusading for a clean Seine. "If Chirac swims in 1994, I would have to tell the children of Paris: Do not do such a stupid thing."

Engineers have unquestionably made big strides in cleansing the Seine. In 1970, Paris dumped 25% of its raw sewage straight into the river, with no treatment at all. Now, thanks to a sprawling treatment complex downstream at Acheres, Parisian toilets flush into the Seine only during big rainstorms.

That's because apartment pipes and street gutters form a single system, which overflows when rain fills the streets. Moral: Choose a dry day if you must swim in the Seine.

SOBERING NEWS. The river has become cleaner than many others in Europe, such as the chemical-soaked Rhine. Last summer's death of 80 tons of Seine fish after a rainstorm proved at least that fish are multiplying, government authorities argue. Restoring a healthy fish population and making river water easier to purify for drinking are the official goals of the cleanup campaign. All of the cities on the river, including Paris, drink only from the Seine.

Yet squeezing the last dregs of pollution from the Seine is proving to be complex. That's sobering news--and not just for Paris. If cleaning the Seine, a smallish river in a lightly industrialized region, is tough, then coping with the pollution-choked waterways of Eastern Europe's smokestack cities promises to be a nightmare.

Some French engineers think backers of a clean Seine are asking too much. From his high-rise office at the upstream end of Paris, Michel Affholder looks down upon a river vista of sand barges toward the distant spire of Notre-Dame. "We're not planning swimming holes in Paris," says Affholder, a genial engineer who is technical boss of Operation Clean Seine, as the 10-year program is called. In any case, he notes that a Paris swimming club has long held an annual cross-the-Seine swim for hundreds of participants, without serious illness.

But healthy swimming holes are precisely what many Parisians want. In Julia's closet-size office in the rabbit warren of France's National Assembly, he talks of turning the city's ancient trade artery into an aquatic playground. "The Seine is going to be the world's cleanest urban river," vows the former Sorbonne philosophy professor. "City planners will come from America to see our example."

It could happen. Julia's campaign to spend $6 billion for an ultraclean Seine seems to be winning support. It tooka big step forward in December, when towns along the Marne, a polluted tributary that joins the Seine upstream from Paris, launched Operation Marne Zero Pollution. At a kickoff lunch, officials served fried smelt from Norway but promised a meal of Seine-Marne smelt in about 10 years.

SPAWNING RUNS. Because of pollution, it is illegal for restaurants to serve fish from those rivers. Few classy fish live there anyway. But by decade's end, experts predict spawning salmon will swim past Notre-Dame, as they did early in the century. The government will stock upstream colonies and build fish ladders around downstream obstacles that would block the salmon's return from the English Channel.

Purifying the Seine is taking cash,but no new technology. A giant tunnelis to carry Paris sewage to Acheres, freeing the river from human waste within four or five years. Floating dams will trap solid debris. New construction projects must separate sewers from storm drains--an idea borrowed from Chicago. The region needs more treatment plants. And there are special headaches, such as jet fuel that washes into the river from Orly Airport runways.

But Paris has headed off a potential new polluter: Euro Disneyland. When the massive theme park opens next spring 20 miles east of Paris, 25,000 cars will sit in its parking lot each day, dripping oil that rain would wash into the Marne. Disney, however, has agreed to scrub the runoff and dump it into the park's artificial lakes.

A crystal-clear Seine would mark a major change from ancient European habits. The old ways are summed up nicely by a turn-of-the-century photograph in a recent Paris exhibit. Ona lush riverbank, a sign requests: "Keep this picnic spot clean. Throw your trash in the river." If the French can stop doing that, fishing and frolicking inthe romantic Seine may become newreasons for visiting the City of Light.

STEWART TOY; Paris Bureau Chief Toy watches plasticbottles--and worse--float past his riverfront apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis.

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