In spite of the United States 25-year efforts to cleanup rivers and lakes for aquatic life, pollution still exists. In fact, nearly 40 percent of lakes, estuaries and rivers that the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) tested are unsuitable for swimming or fishing. Any kind of poor water quality impairs life, but some types of pollution have extreme and far-reaching effects.
Nonpoint Pollution Source
The EPA attributes NPS (Nonpoint Pollution Source) as the reason that America's lakes, rivers and estuaries remain polluted. Some of the NPS can be prevented, but much of it is the result of rain, melting snow and irrigation systems. All three of these events mean water picks up all types of debris and pollutants in its path to waterways.
Water runoff from parking lots, industries, farmland and suburbs carries oil, gasoline, pesticides, sewage and other various contaminates into water supplies, lakes, rivers and eventually the oceans. Trash, plastic bottles and other refuse also are carried away in floods and rainstorms. The pollutants all have a negative, often devastating, impact on vegetation and aquatic eco-systems.
Some of the activities that can create NPS include:
- Agriculture: The EPA attributes agriculture as the number one cause of water pollution in its latest National Water Quality Inventory. This report cites that 60 percent of the degradation of rivers and and 50 percent of the impaired lake acreage is due to agriculture. Sediment that washes from agriculture is the most common form of pollution. The sediment from farms contains a wide range of pollutants including pesticides, greases and oils, as well as toxic chemicals. Heavy metals and salts are also carried from farmlands into water supplies.
- Animal grazing: Animal feeding grounds of large and small farms also create problems from waste as well as the spreading of deadly viruses and bacteria that get into the country's rivers, streams and lakes.
- Construction: Whether it's a suburb, inner city or road construction, each brings the danger of pollution finding its way into the water.
- Natural disaster aftermath: Probably one of the least publicized forms of pollution is the aftermath of floods, tornadoes and hurricanes that carry all kinds of pollutants into all bodies of water. During Hurricane Hugo and Fran, hog farms in North Carolina were flooded. The treatment ponds for waste overflowed and carried the hog waste into nearby streams, rivers, sounds and eventually the ocean. Hurricane Katrina carried entire towns into the oceans and rivers. Along with the actual buildings, all of the contents, which included various household chemicals and poisons were also washed waterways. In addition, commercial businesses with hazardous waste products also found their way into water systems.
- Recreational boating: The gasoline and oil left behind from boats and jet skis can easily be seen on the surfaces of lakes.
- Septic systems: Old and leaky systems and those damaged by floods seep into ground water and can contaminate drinking water supplies, especially local wells.
- Urban runoffs: This form of pollution is cited as "the largest source of water quality impairments to surveyed estuaries (areas near the coast where seawater mixes with freshwater)". This can also come from landfills as well as homes and shopping malls.
- Household product pollution: The EPA reports that the household mismanagement of potentially harmful pollutants is one of the contributing factors to water pollution. The mishandling of these pollutants, often harsh chemicals, is due to either being ignorant of proper handling and disposing of the products or acts of carelessness when dealing with toxic and harmful household products.
Much of the prior focus on pollution was to put a stop to pollution caused by industry dumping of harsh harmful chemicals used during the manufacturing processes directly into rivers, lakes and streams. Proper disposal of industry chemicals, equipment and other pollutants are ways to prevent further runoff pollution from the actual plant or landfills. There are still issues of illegal dumping into rivers and streams, but stringent regulations, stiff penalties and public awareness has stopped much of the destructive pollution witnessed during the 20th century.
Nuclear power plants, located on lakes are under strict guidelines, but use water for cooling the reactors. This process raises the temperatures of surrounding waters and can disturb aquatic eco-systems. There is also the risk of accidental contamination of radioactive material should an unforeseen natural or manmade disaster occur.
Erosion plays a big factor in natural pollution processes due to rainstorms, floods and urbanization. Erosion displaces soil and alters the natural eco-system of rivers, streams and lakes. Too much soil displacement can literally change the channel direction of a river or stream. Erosion can carry oil, gasoline and other harmful chemicals into water supplies. Dirt roads are the one of the leading causes of erosion pollution since these roadbeds can be easily washed out during heavy rainstorms. The dirt material can be washed into ditches and cause rain runoff to back up and overflow drainage systems that eventually wash into streams and rivers.
Watersheds Vital to Life
All land drains from rain, natural streams, creeks, springs and rivers. The lay of the land and how it falls determines which way this runoff water drains. The area of runoff and water collection is known as a watershed. These occur naturally and thanks to land configurations, watersheds are naturally separated from each other. Watersheds are vital to ensuring clean water supplies for drinking, as well as the eco-systems that support them. These vital water supplies are closely monitored and protected. In fact, you may have seen signs indicating a restricted area that is designated as a watershed for a certain region. By keeping a close watch on the water quality early detection of any issues with pollution or drainage problems can help prevent a real threat. If a watershed is polluted or contaminated, then everyone dependent upon the watershed will suffer with catastrophic results.
Educating Public about Water Conservation
One of the biggest ways that water pollution can be prevented and stopped is through public education. This includes more than just cleanup days where debris is removed from rivers, although such events are very successful and necessary. Prevention is the most powerful tool in the arsenal against water pollution. Learning about harmful chemicals and how to properly dispose of them is vital to ensuring fresh water remains usable.