Posts Tagged ‘water pollution’

I never expected that I would be a tribute writer, but recently that’s how its panned out (I hope you read my posts on Silent Spring, and Russell Train).  In this latest tribute, last week, the Clean Water Act turned 40!

There’s no doubt that the Clean Water Act has led to cleaner watersheds and reduced pollution in our nation’s waters.  To date, 65% of our nation’s waters are swimmable and fishable (that’s the Act’s classifications).  What many don’t know is that the Clean Water Act was passed through amendments to the Federal Pollution Control Act of 1948, and it was a result of several disasters such as the famous burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River.

One of the goals of the Clean Water Act was for all the nation’s waterways to be fishable and swimmable by 1985.  News flash, we haven’t met that goal.  The Act gave authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and to states to set pollution control standards to restore and monitor water quality.  One of the greatest aspects of the Act is that it allows public citizens to file suit on violators of the Act.  Many people don’t know this!  I’ve heard from EPA officials that the Clean Water Act is the people’s act.  Our nation’s waterways belong to us.

A few successes of the Clean Water Act include better overall water quality to over 60% of the nation’s waterways, more waterways that are swimmable, and restoration of major waterways such as the Hudson and Cuyahoga Rivers and Lake Erie.  I think the OMB article only touched on a few of the Act’s successes and I’m sure you can do a Google search and find more info.  Although I only like to highlight positive sustainable practices in my posts, I think it’s only fair to highlight that there are future challenges ahead for the Clean Water Act.  Factors such as population growth and urban development have led to runoff mismanagement,  particularly water from wet weather events, that are not addressed in the Clean Water Act.  Wastewater in natural gas fracturing (fracking) wells are also not included in the Act. Just today I heard that this current Congress has posed approximately 200 attacks on the Clean Water Act.

But, this is a tribute, and clean water will win.

Clean pipe discharge!

There are so many great on-the-ground partnerships taking on water issues, a few that come to mind include The Urban Waters Federal Partnership, Groundworks USA, and the River Network.  Those who question and attack the Act must not want fishable and swimmable waters for their families.  Maybe they just take it for granted, I think that’s the case.  Cheers to 40 years of success and to another 40 years of greater success.  Now go for a swim!

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Happy Wednesday, amigos! It’s been a beautiful week so far here in Washington, D.C.  The weather is warm, restaurants are opening their patios, everyone is out jogging around the national mall, and I’m planning on eating frozen yogurt for dinner tonight. I’d say that the warm weather is what makes this a great time to think about water, but really, I think about water almost every single day.  I love water.  I love to drink it, I love to swim in it, I sometimes love to pour it on my head after a really, really long run.  I even think about water all day at work, every day.  I think about water like it’s my job.  Probably because it is my job, but the point is that water is pretty great.


Yeah. It's THAT great.

Or at least, water is pretty great…until it’s not.  As reported yesterday by the Washington Post, if you’re a resident of Salinas Valley and Fresno, Tulare, Kings or Kern county in California, water is probably not making you very happy right now.  At least half the residents of these areas – 1.3 million people – have nitrate levels in their water that exceed the limit set by EPA.  With continued population growth and current trends, this is expected rise to 80% by 2050.

Where are all these nitrates coming from?  The #1 answer is agricultural runoff: While nitrates are a necessary nutrient, excessive fertilizers and livestock manure creates contaminated runoff that eventually ends up in surface waters and can leach into groundwater sources such as well and aquifers.  Residents drinking out of private wells or untreated water are at a particularly high risk, although contamination is also found in areas with overtaxed water treatment facilities and frequent sewage overflow.  The result?  Somebody’s drinking water source + fertilizers + livestock manure = gross.


No, Mr. Cow, that's not funny.

In addition to the fact that that’s gross, nitrate contamination has been linked to reproductive disorders and cancer, but is most well known as a main cause of “blue baby syndrome” – a phrase that refers to an often-fatal condition in newborns and infants in which the blood does not deliver sufficient oxygen to the body, resulting in tissue hypoxia, and if untreated, death.  Although there are several causes of blue baby syndrome, some of which are congenital, one of them is acquired methemoglobinemia,  and it’s totally preventable.  This condition is caused by high levels of nitrates in drinking water as well as the presence of certain pesticides, including DDT and PCB’s.  While we’re at it, I will mention that just the way it does in human children, the effect that high nitrate levels have on dissolved oxygen is fatal to many aquatic organisms as well and has profound impacts on ecosystems.  But let’s take care of the humans first before we worry about the fish.


Sorry, buddy. We'll get to when we can.

Sadly, California isn’t the only case where agricultural runoff has caused problems.  High levels of nitrates in drinking water were also found in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio, according to the Environmental Working Group.  And while EPA does regulate nitrate levels in drinking water, there are important caveats to this regulation.  First, the maximum level currently set (10 ppm) does not account for prolonged exposure – for example, what happens if a woman is consuming low-levels of nitrate contamination across an entire nine month pregnancy.  Nitrates build up in the system and the effects are compounded, so even if a single glass of water isn’t dangerous, the cumulative effects might be.

Second, EPA’s jurisdiction does not extend over private wells and groundwater sources, nor does it apply to contaminants that are sprayed or discharged onto fields.  (The only reason this nitrate problem came to light is because of a study that was conducted by special order of the California state legislature.)  Of course, whenever EPA tries to make a move towards tighter standards for more water sources, conservatives everywhere begin clutching their pearls and shaking their pitchforks, decrying the invasion of privacy and stating that “EPA is trying to regulate every last mud puddle.”


"I just can't reckon why those folks at EPA want us to drink clean water, Thelma."

I guess they have a point– it’s a free country, and if you want to drink untreated water that was contaminated by chemicals and livestock manure (yes, I mean cow pies) then that’s your choice.


But he's just going to keep laughing at you for it.

Stepping away from my normal snarkiness for a moment, this situation is actually pretty sad – many rural families are forced to assume the additional economic burden of purchasing bottled water in order to protect themselves during pregnancy and to protect young children from the health risks associated with drinking local water.  And sadly, nitrate contamination and the problems caused by agricultural runoff are actually just the tip of the iceberg where water is concerned.  As reported by The New York Times as part of their “Toxic Water” series in 2009:

“…Independent studies in such journals as Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology; Environmental Health Perspectives; American Journal of Public Health; and Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, as well as reports published by the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that millions of Americans become sick each year from drinking contaminated water, with maladies from upset stomachs to cancer and birth defects.”

The bottom line here is that while our nation has a lot of issues facing us today, I’m wondering if it’s time to stop arguing about problems we really can’t solve, and pay attention to those we can: how to fix our water infrastructure.  The other option, of course, is to just stop drinking water.


I had to.

You can read the Huffington Post summary of nitrate pollution in California here. (And stay tuned for future posts, where I will revisit the question of water, cost, and who pays for all of this!)


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