We’ve come a long way in the U.S. since our rivers used to catch on fire. Here’s a picture of the Cuyahoga River burning in 1969, three years before President Nixon signed into law the Clean Water Act. And while we celebrate the fact our rivers no longer light up the night skies, there are still serious challenges that lurk beneath the surface. This week I received in the mail my hard copy of the USGS survey of the ecological health of the nation’s streams, from 1993-2005. According to U.S. EPA’s figures, somewhere around 40 percent of our streams are impaired and do not meet state water quality standards. Interestingly, however, the USGS results paint a slightly less rosy picture than EPA, claiming that of all the streams assessed, 83 percent had at least one biological community – algae, macroinvertebrates, or fish – altered. Now, while EPA’s and USGS’s statistics are measuring slightly different things and in slightly different manners, the USGS paints a more bleak picture in terms of recent trends. Excess nutrients from wastewater and industrial facilities, fertilizer and manure from agricultural land, runoff from urban areas, and atmospheric deposition contribute to algal blooms and other water quality problems that plague many of our rivers and oceans, including the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico where large dead zones occur. During the study period, altered algal communities increased from 21 to 39 percent – really bad trend. And macroinvertebrates, i.e., aquatic bugs, altered communities increased from 20 to 42 percent in streams with greater potential for toxicity due to pesticides – another bad trend. Ultimately, our goal, as enshrined in the Clean Water Act, is to have both humans and fish swimming together. So if the fish are dead or the bugs in the streams that feed the fish are absent, then we won’t reach that goal.
Just a sidebar commentary on water assessment work by USGS and EPA, which is often overlapping on these studies. USGS does some really great work and they have top-notch scientists. They’ve done some of the best and most enlightening work on endocrine disruptors in water, which will be the next big conflagration as I alluded to here in a prior post. However, there’s no other way to say it, but USGS can be a thorn in EPA’s behind when it comes to studies like this. While USGS’s work helps to further the science and our collective knowledge of these ecosystems, the reality is that USGS isn’t a regulatory agency and EPA is. And it’s much easier to be the bearer of bad news, if it’s not your ox being gored. So, what happens is USGS comes out with bad news like this, and EPA scrambles to pick of the pieces and deal with the political fallout. This is sometimes awkward dance to watch, but the work of USGS is really important, because it doesn’t have the cloud of political and regulatory suspicion hanging over it.
I strained to find any good news in this 120 page study. And truth be told, the only thing I can come up with is the fact that our knowledge and understanding of aquatic impacts and the sources of those impacts is improving. At some point in the future, I plan to pen a post on how clean we realistically should expect our waters to be while erstwhile supporting the daily “duties” and activities of 300 million humans. But, in the interim, and as the only adage goes, if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So, let’s get busy measuring and managing.