Good and Bad News for America’s Waterways

September 19, 2014

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A recent long-term study done by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has good and bad news to report on the state of streams and rivers in the United States.
On a positive note, there has been a “striking decline in dangers to humans from pesticide pollution,” writes Michael Wines for the New York Times. Regulations restricting the use of harmful pesticides deserve some of the credit, while new pesticides that are less toxic to humans have had a significant effect as well.

Though the threat to human health has declined, threats to aquatic life have remained constant or risen. The study shows that rising chemical levels are a particular problem for urban streams: “the proportion of streams with pesticide levels above the aquatic-life benchmark soared from 53 percent [in the 1990’s] to 90 percent” in the first decade of the 21st century.
The rise in threats to aquatic organisms was partially unintentional. In the 1990’s, certain chemicals were banned, causing manufacturers to switch to other varieties. Unfortunately one of the replacements, fipronil (used in anti-insect products), is more harmful to streams due to “byproducts of fipronil’s natural decay.” This chemical was found in 70% of the streams most recently tested.

Wines’ article ends on another negative note. The situation looks dire enough according to the published data, but the USGS did not test for all pesticides and chemicals potentially found in streams, and new versions are being produced and sold all the time. If anything, the warnings they published are only the baseline of what could be an even larger problem.

Though the statistics are bleak, a lot can be done locally to protect and improve waterways. Katherine Baer, Director of Conservation for TLC, discusses the importance of day-lighting covered urban streams in, “Bringing Creeks Back to Life.” Green infrastructure such as green roofs, riparian buffers, and natural marshes provide excellent ways to treat stormwater before it enters vulnerable waterways. Finally, further regulation, which this article demonstrates has been so effective in the past, could ban harmful chemicals and institute new use restrictions.

TLC continues to protect clean water by:
– Protecting land along streams,
– Practicing and encouraging land management that keeps soil and pollutants out of streams, and
– Leading the development of more effective, collaborative, approaches to protecting water.

Want to learn more? Check out TLC’s Annual Report video highlighting the importance of clean water, seen below. Click here to explore the full 2012-2013 Annual Report.

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