Water And Oceanography

American Waterways in Poor Condition says EPA

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The 2013 Assessment of National Rivers and Streams, conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found that more than half of US rivers and streams are in poor condition, according to the Huffington Post. According to CBS News, “More than half…are in poor biological health, unable to support healthy populations of aquatic insects and other creatures.”

Study by the EPA
More than 2,000 rivers and streams across the country were sampled between 2008 and 2009 for this extensive survey. These ranged from huge rivers (such as the Mississippi) to creeks small enough that one could wade through. Only 21 percent were deemed to be in good biological health, with the majority (some 55 percent) considered “poor.”

According to Nancy Stoner of the EPA’s Water Office, “This new science shows that America’s streams and rivers are under significant pressure. We must continue to invest in protecting and restoring our nation’s streams and rivers as they are vital sources of our drinking water, provide many recreational opportunities and play a critical role in the economy,” as noted in the Huffington Post.

Troubles found in nation’s waterways
The most easily discernible problem found in the EPA study was high levels of “nutrient pollution, caused by phosphorus and nitrogen.” Of particular concern was phosphorus, which was found in some 40 percent of the rivers and streams sampled. Used in detergents and fertilizers, run-offs from farmland and industrial sources were likely suspects in this water polluting factor.

Nitrogen was found in 27 percent of the water bodies. Too much of these chemical elements (nitrogen and phosphorus) are dangerous as they create algae “which harms water quality, food resources and habitats, and decreases the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive,” according to the EPA.

Another destructive factor was development (and the clearing of land) along waterways, which has led to increasing levels of pollution. Loss of the vegetative cover along rivers and streams allows for more flooding and erosion. Nearly a quarter of the water bodies researched in this study did not have sufficient vegetation along their banks.

Mercury, another dangerous factor in human health, was found along some 13,000 miles of water channels, making the fish found in those waterways unsafe for human consumption. Although this pollutant can occur naturally, it is also the result of coal-burning plants and emanates from the burning of hazardous materials as well.

A full 9 percent of the water studied by the EPA was found to have bacteria that exceeded the level acceptable for human health, making them dangerous for swimming or other human recreational activities.

Locations of highest pollution
Not surprisingly, water located in the Eastern half of the nation tended to be more polluted than that found out West. The situation was so severe that east of the Mississippi River, 70 percent of streams and rivers were found to be of poor quality, while only 26 percent in mountainous Western states were this bad.

What’s next
While the EPA is still working on the findings of this 2013 study, there are plans by the EPA to use “this new data to inform decision making about addressing critical needs around the country for rivers, streams, and other water bodies.” According to the EPA, the ultimate goal is to “enhance the ability of states and tribes to assess and manage water quality to help protect our water, aquatic life and human health.”

More about this author: Christine Zibas

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