EPA Targets Future Water Cleanups, But You Can Cover Problems Now

September 1, 2010

A high percentage of the nation's streams, lakes, and coastal waters remain seriously impaired, even though the Clean Water Act has been in effect for nearly four decades. Those degraded waters increase health risks for people who play in them, eat food from them, or drink water extracted from them, and also can harm wildlife, plants, and soils.

EPA acknowledges that the overall problem continues to worsen, as more water bodies routinely are added to the impaired-waters list than are removed. Nonpoint sources such as agricultural and urban runoff have generally been addressed less than point sources, and are considered major culprits.

EPA has been pondering whether more improvements are possible without impeding local economies. That might involve a wide variety of changes, such as altering the Clean Water Act, altering the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, changing how EPA administers the CWA or NPDES, enforcing existing laws (which many critics say are widely ignored or given short shrift), working in different ways with local agencies and organizations, improving how water quality is assessed (including consistency among all states), acting before problems become acute, or other strategies.

In one of the latest steps in this process, the agency is opening up its draft strategy for clean water for public comment until Sept. 17, 2010. One main theme of the strategy is that the problem is so complex, and varies so much from location to location, that solutions must be carefully crafted to address local circumstances, while still working under an overarching federal umbrella.

But the strategy itself is only one of many threads you can follow to come up with high-impact local stories on water pollution. There already is extensive information on the waters that are impaired, where they are, what types of land uses or other sources are causing the problems, and what types of substances are at fault. In some cases, negotiations or projects are under way to address certain problems. In other cases, problems are little acknowledged or addressed.

One starting point is:

One of the links on that page, which is full of resources, sends you to a state-by-state smorgasbord of detailed data.

Some states have enormous problems, such as Pennsylvania's 6,957 impaired waters, Virginia's 2,534, Washington's 2,419, and Michigan's 2,352. Even the tiny Virgin Islands has 77 impaired waters, and Washington, D.C., has 27.

Click on each state and you'll get a list of probable sources of problems, such as agriculture, construction, municipal discharges, urban stormwater runoff, and industrial sources. That same page will have data on how many linear miles, square miles, or acres of water bodies are degraded. You can click on each of those numbers and get a list of specific waterbodies affected and types of sources causing the problems. Also, click on each type of general problem source and you'll get a breakout of subcategories that are problems, and acreage/miles of water bodies each affects.

Lower down there's information on how many water bodies recently have been determined to no longer be impaired, or for which a plan to reduce problems has been completed. There's also much more information about specific types of sources and the extent of their effects. You can also track historic trends for some data from 2002-2008.

Check with your state environment or natural resources department for more information.

EPA says in its draft strategy that cleaning up Chesapeake Bay will serve as a demonstration project for improved approaches and methods. Work has been proceeding for many years. Some critics of recent developments contend that the commitments in the latest compromise efforts will sacrifice water quality elsewhere in the country.

Near the end of the draft strategy is a list of specific topics of focus. Among them are hot-button issues such as concentrated animal feeding operations, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) used in natural gas extraction, power plant cooling water use, and pesticide infiltration. Those topics alone make this issue of interest to most localities in the country. Add in the major issues of sewage plant discharges and stormwater runoff, and nearly every community in the country has a stake in this.