Climate Corner: Water is life

Mar 30, 2024

Vic Elam

During the Roman Empire, it is thought that lead poisoning from the lead pipes that the Romans used may have caused or contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire. Yet today we defile the Earth’s precious waters with all manner of toxic substances apparently using some logic that we can contaminate water in all places and in all manner and somehow remain unaffected. That logic does not hold water.

According to EPA’s most recent National Rivers and Streams Assessment (NRSA) 42% of the nation’s rivers and streams were considered in poor condition due to phosphorus levels and 44% poor because of elevated nitrogen levels. These two elements are considered nutrients and although they may be good to put on your yard or garden, too much in streams causes problems like harmful bacteria and algae. There are many sources of nutrients that contaminate water; agricultural crop production, livestock waste and lawn fertilizer applications are but a few.

Another striking finding from the NRSA is that 64% of river and stream miles had moderate or high levels of riparian disturbance. Riparian is defined as lands that occur along the edges of rivers, streams, lakes, and other water bodies. Riparian disturbance can be cropping to the edge, maintaining a cleared area of lawn to the edge, or could be damage from excessive wave action (wake) from boats, etc. Riparian disturbance typically results in bank erosion or costly addition of armament such as riprap, degradation of habitat quality for wildlife, and certainly negatively impacts the scenic quality of our rivers.

Fish tissues were collected and analyzed for other contaminants and found to exceed screening levels for mercury (26%) and PCBs (45%). Also, PFOS, also known as a forever chemicals, was detected in 91%. Bacteria levels exceeded the EPA human health benchmark in 20% of river and stream miles.

One parameter that has a big impact on wildlife is sedimentation; nationally sedimentation was rated as 57% Good, 23% Fair, and 20% Poor. The Southern Appalachia Ecoregion which encompasses the Mid-Ohio Valley saw an increase of 11% in the good condition rating for sediment, so it’s not all bad.

Of course we know that fossil fuel extraction exacts a toll on our water quality. Modern hydraulic fracturing (fracking) typically uses many millions of gallons per well. Often that water is taken from surface streams, severely depleting the flow available to wildlife. After the water is used for fracking much of it returns to the surface, but not always where it was injected. When it returns it is contaminated with all manner of harmful chemicals, salts, and radiation, making disposal especially treacherous. And we all know about the perils from acid mine drainage from coal mines and coal-fired power plant sludge landfill leaching.

A recent Supreme Court ruling that supersedes previous court rulings based on a case referred to as Sackett v. EPA, has jeopardized water quality all over the country by weakening the protections for wetlands. Wetlands provide what is referred to as ecosystem services by lessening the impacts from floods, storing carbon, providing wildlife habitat, allowing water to recharge aquifers and remove contaminants from water. The Sackett ruling allows previously protected wetlands to be drained, filled and converted to other uses.

Plastics are yet another threat to our water. Oceans are becoming so inundated with plastic that fish are ingesting microplastics that result from deterioration of larger plastics. Lab results are showing that plastic is making its way into fish tissue including seafood that we eat.

Pharmaceuticals are another threat. Humans eliminate trace amounts of drugs that we use into the municipal wastewater system. Most wastewater treatment facilities are not capable of eliminating many of these chemicals and their derivatives before releasing the water back into the environment. Once released back into the environment these chemicals can make their way back into another municipal water supply or that water can be used for irrigating crops where the chemicals have been shown in crops and they can have negative impacts for wildlife.

It’s time we wake up and realize the value of water and the need to protect it. We are blessed with an ample water supply in our region, we should not take that for granted. Water is Life.


Vic Elam is a Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action member, an avid outdoorsman, and contributor to organizations that share his concern for our environment and the children we borrow it from.