Water is essential for life, and water quality is often at odds with the demands of increased development. Conflicting laws, poorly enforced environmental regulations, and increased citizen monitoring are the ingredients for powerful and long-lasting controversy.
III. NPS Pollution
IV. Known NPSs of Water Pollution
V. Role of Communities
VI. Runoff from Urban Areas
Water pollution is a term that describes any adverse environmental effect on water bodies (lakes, rivers, the sea, groundwater) caused by the actions of humankind. Although natural phenomena such as volcanoes, storms, and earthquakes also cause major changes in water chemistry and the ecological status of water, these are not pollution. Water pollution has many causes and characteristics. Humans and livestock produce bodily wastes that enter rivers, lakes, oceans, and other surface waters. These wastes increase the solids suspended in the water and the concentration of bacteria and viruses, leading to potential health impacts.
Increases in nutrient loading may lead to eutrophication, or dead zones, in lakes and coastal water. Organic wastes deplete the water of oxygen, which potentially has severe impacts on the whole ecosystem. Industries and municipalities discharge pollutants, permitted and sometimes unpermitted, into their wastewater, including heavy metals, organic toxins, oils, pesticides, fertilizers, and solids. Discharges can also have direct and indirect thermal effects, especially those from nuclear power stations, and also reduce the available oxygen. Human activities that disturb the land can lead to silt running off the land into the waterways. This silt can have environmentally detrimental effects even if it does not contain pollution. Silt-bearing runoff comes from many activities, including construction, logging, mining, and farming. It can kill aquatic and other types of life. Salmon, for example, do not spawn if the temperature of the water is too high.
Another environmental controversy around water quality is that when water becomes polluted, native species of plants and animals fail to flourish in rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. Depending on how exactly the water quality is impaired, some of these species may be threatened with extinction. If, for example, the water quality is impaired through agricultural runoff containing nitrogen and other chemical fertilizers, this may precipitate algae blooms. These blooms can warm up the water as well as rapidly deplete oxygen in the water.
Pollutants in water include chemicals, pathogens, and hazardous wastes. Many of the chemical substances are toxic. Many of the municipal water supplies in developed and undeveloped countries can present health risks. Water quality standards consist of three elements: the designated uses assigned to those waters (such as public water supply, recreation, or shellfish harvesting), criteria to protect those uses (such as chemical-specific thresholds that should not be exceeded), and an anti-degradation policy intended to keep waters that do meet standards from deteriorating from their current condition.
Water regulations control point sources of pollution. Some environmentalists consider the definition of point source to be too narrow because it allows smaller discharges into the water. It has been estimated that between 50 and 80 percent of water pollution comes from non-point sources. Non–point source (NPS) pollution comes from many sources, including human habitation and industrial emissions currently unaccounted for. NPS pollution begins with precipitation moving on and through the ground. As the force of gravity pulls the water down, it carries with it natural and human-made pollutants. Many of these pollutants end up in lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and underground sources of drinking water. These pollutants include the following:
- Excess fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides from agricultural lands and residential areas
- Oil, grease, and toxic chemicals from urban runoff and energy production
- Sediment from improperly managed construction sites, crop and forest lands, and eroding stream banks
- Salt from irrigation practices and acid drainage from abandoned mines
- Bacteria and nutrients from livestock, pet wastes, and faulty septic systems
Atmospheric deposition is also a source of NPS pollution. An incinerator next to a lake could be a source of water pollution.
III. NPS Pollution
States report that NPS pollution is the leading remaining cause of water quality problems. The effects of NPS pollutants on specific waters vary and may not always be fully assessed. These pollutants have harmful effects on drinking water supplies, recreation, fisheries, and wildlife. With only about 20 percent of lakes and rivers being monitored in any way and much to learn about the movement of underground water and aquifers, the degree of uncertainty as to non–point sources is currently very large. Even water areas that are monitored still allow permits to industries and cities to discharge treated and untreated waste and chemicals.
NPS pollution results from a wide variety of human activities on the land. These activities touch upon debates in areas from private property to corporate environmental responsibility. Governmental responses to water pollution from NPSs are spread across the spectrum. Some activities are federal responsibilities, such as ensuring that federal lands are properly managed to reduce soil erosion. Some are state responsibilities, for example, developing legislation to govern mining and logging and to protect groundwater. Others are local, such as land-use controls like erosion control ordinances. The coordination of intergovernmental relations and communication between these levels of government about water pollution approaches are poor, contributing to the controversy.
The United States developed new environmental policies in the past 35 years to clean up water pollution by controlling emissions from industries and municipal sewage treatment plants. This last 35-year period was preceded by 500 years of urbanization and then industrialization and waves of immigration from every coast. There was little in the way of enforceable environmental legislation in the United States until 1970. Navigable waterways have been intentionally and unintentionally altered in drastic ways, such as the rechanneling the Mississippi River by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Modern plumbing devices, such as backflow regulators, help keep wastewater separate from drinking water. Urbanized areas without backflow regulators on industry eventually taint the entire watershed. In many areas, it is often the case that as water quantity goes down so does water quality. In places such as Texas, which practiced a form of waste discharge called deep well injection, some of the water sources may be contaminated. The accumulated wastes from the water pollution both before and after the formation of the U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA) will themselves foster cleanup controversies. Fear of liability for past acts of environmental contamination is a powerful motivator, but it can lead to either forward thinking or attempts to sweep the problem under the rug.
NPS pollution is the largest source of water quality problems in the United States. It remains the catchall term for all other than point sources of water pollution. Point sources are regulated by the EPA, which in 2010 announced an overhaul of regulations that would allow officials to keep a close watch on dozens of contaminants simultaneously and tighten rules on chemicals used by industry. Each watershed is allowed to have a limited overall amount of water pollution. If all sources were counted, including non– point sources, the overall amount of permissible chemical discharges into the watershed would decrease. This could result in fewer permits being issued. The fewer permits issued generally means less industrial economic development. Industries and governments prefer more industrial and manufacturing economic development. Some industries prefer not to compete with other industries in the same watershed and may not want to share a water permit. Uncertainty of the water permit can deter financial investors from long-term investments in a plant or real property.
Other stakeholders—like farmers, agribusiness, and Native Americans—all hold various rights and expectations for the same water. NPS of water pollution have serious unresolved environmental issues that involve many stakeholders. Accurate environmental monitoring is a necessity as the foundation of sound environmental policy, especially if sustainability is the goal. The range of disrespect for the environment from some stakeholders shocks other stakeholders, who feel reverence for the environment when it comes to water pollution. The wide range of environmental expectations becomes controversial when accurate environmental monitoring and research reveal the true extent of the environmental impacts of water pollution.
IV. Known NPSs of Water Pollution
Agribusiness is the leading source of water quality impairments, degrading 60 percent of the impaired river miles and half of the impaired lake acreage surveyed by states, territories, and tribes. Runoff from urban areas is also a very large source of water quality impairments. Roads, parking lots, airports, and other impervious paved surfaces that occur with U.S. land development increase the runoff of precipitation into other parts of the watershed. The most common NPS pollutants are soil sediment and chemical nutrients. Other NPS pollutants include pesticides, pathogens (bacteria and viruses), salts, oil, grease, toxic chemicals, and heavy metals.
V. Role of Communities
Communities play an important role in addressing NPS pollution. When coordinated with federal, state, and local environmental programs and initiatives, community-based NPS control efforts can be highly successful. More than 500 active volunteer monitoring groups currently operate throughout the United States. Monitoring groups may also have information about other NPS pollution projects, such as beach cleanups, stream walks, and restoration activities. More than 40 states now have some type of program to help communities conserve water. NPS pollution starts at the household level. Households, for example, can water lawns during cooler hours of the day, limit fertilizer and pesticide applications, and properly store chemicals to reduce runoff and keep runoff clean. Pet wastes, a significant source of nutrient contamination, should be disposed of properly. Communities can also replace impervious surfaces with more porous surfaces.
VI. Runoff from Urban Areas
NPS pollution often come from paved, impermeable road surfaces. These can be in urban, suburban, or rural areas. Many vehicle emissions run off from the pavement with water when it rains. Effective drainage systems can remove this water to city water systems, but these do not necessarily treat the runoff for its load of pollutants. In many cities, the consolidated sewer overflow system, means that when it rains heavily the sewers simply overflow into the nearest river or lake. Many urban sewer and water systems are old and need repair, especially those made with lead pipes.
Cities with storm sewer systems that quickly channel runoff from roads and other impervious surfaces increase their environmental impacts with large flow variations. Runoff gathers speed in the storm sewer system. When it leaves the system, large volumes of quickly flowing runoff erode riparian areas and alter stream channels. Native fish, amphibians, and plants cannot live in urban streams impacted by urban runoff.
Water pollution will become more controversial. As water pollution standards mature, environmental impact assessment and pollution accountability will increase. Many stakeholders now assume they have the right to fresh, clean water, and as much of it as they want. Where the water begins to run out, violent confrontations can occur. In Klamath, Oregon—the site of a furious water controversy between farmers, various agencies of the federal and state government, and environmentalists—violence erupted in 2006 as Native American children were assaulted on their school bus by farmers angry at their loss of water. Although the Klamath tribe tried to avoid the controversy, they do have water rights by treaty and law. The farmers’ property rights lawsuit, claiming that they owned the water as a property right, was dismissed in a 57-page opinion in federal court. In 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney was investigated by a House committee to see if he had illegally intervened in this dispute and commanded federal agencies to let agribusiness get the water. The committee was unable to find conclusive proof that Cheney directly gave incriminating orders. In 2010, the governors of Oregon and California, the U.S. secretary of the interior, and leaders of Native American tribes signed an agreement in part establishing water-sharing rights between farmers and fishers.
As more and more of the aquatic environment becomes known, the issue of who pays for cleanup and for dredging becomes increasingly salient. There are controversies over the environmental impacts of these activities alone. In arid developing areas where water can become scarce, those who use it and pollute it affect many other groups. There will be an increase in stakeholder accountability for pollution sources as environmental law enforcement works its way upstream. Litigation and community engagement will increase in the controversy over water pollution.
Robert William Collin
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