Nutrient pollution threatens more than half of US rivers and streams

31 March 2013

Wastewater effluents destroy rivers and lakes (Photo: Bill Harding)

Wastewater effluents destroy rivers and lakes (Photo: Bill Harding)

A somewhat belated USEPA report warns that 55 percent of the USA’s rivers and streams are in a poor ecological state, with nutrient pollution (eutrophication) being implicated as a major cause.  Nutrients derived from inadequately-treated wastewater, urban runoff and/or agricultural drainage are the main sources of the problem.  Only 21% are deemed to be in “good” condition!

If you think the economy has taken a dive in recent years, take a gander at the closest stream running by your house. Chances are, it’s not in any better shape.

The USA is by no means alone in this predicament – the numbers are typical of most developed or developing countries, being much much worse in China, for example.  More than ever before the need to do something about the problem, rather than fiddling around with cosmetic solutions – or whining about the costs, is NOW.

Given that the report is already four years old I wonder what the numbers look like now?  The eutrophication problem is insidious – i.e. there is no sudden “tipping point” BUT, by the time the problem is recognized, it is invariably far advanced and very difficult to reverse and manage (here’s an example from Kansas).  Water pollution is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, threat to aquatic and associated biodiversity – as is described in this article.

In most cases where eutrophication has become firmly established, it will take decades to reverse the problem – as the managers of Lake Whatcom have discovered – but at least they are already 40% of the way there!  States such as Wisconsin, with thousands of lakes and lots of dairy farms, are taking the problem very seriously (well, at least they say they are…).

The state Department of Natural Resources is focused on reducing phosphorus levels, one of the main pollutants found in the [Wisconsin] river. High phosphorus levels lead to an increase in algae blooms, which make the water smell bad and can ruin fisheries, said [a] DNR water expert.

The problem has been very accurately termed “the quiet corruption of our waterways“.  This is a most apt description for a process that continues, largely unabated, all around us, all the time.

Howard County (Baltimore) have mooted a tax to fund stormwater treatment projects – needless to say there is mindless resistance to this from those who cannot see any further than their immediate existence!  The movie ‘Idiocracy’ may not be as far fetched as some may think! One such example is playing out in Canada’s Durham – where the overdue upgrade of a wastewater treatment plant is being opposed.  By contrast, a 70-year old treatment plant in Detroit has been brought back into renewed service.

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