Many Waters Too Dirty for a Dip This Summer Pollution from Agricultural Runoff, Land Development

Article excerpt

From New England to the Gulf Coast to Puget Sound, Americans count on their abundant water systems as sources of sustenance and recreation. Especially in the summer, these beaches, rivers, and lakes are places for rejuvenation. They are also reminders that clean water is essential to many sectors of the economy.

But while the environmental health of such areas has generally improved in recent years - thanks to antipollution and habitat-restoration efforts - there are signs that all is not well in United States waters.

The US Environmental Protection Agency finds that 24 years after passage of the Clean Water Act - designed to restore all US waters so that they are "fishable and swimmable" - 40 percent of rivers, lakes, and streams surveyed still are too polluted for such activities.

"One out of 5 drinking-water systems reports violations of public-health standards," EPA administrator Carol Browner warned last week.

"One out of 3 shellfish beds is closed for harvest because of contamination," Ms. Browner said. "People in many communities are warned that to protect their health, they must limit the amount of fish they eat from their local river, their local lake."

Meanwhile, new information from a national network of biological-data centers indicates that two-thirds of freshwater mussels and crayfish dependent on aquatic or wetland habitat, and more than one-third of fish and amphibians, risk extinction.

According to information from the state agency-based Natural Heritage Program recently released by The Nature Conservancy, primary threats include: agricultural runoff (containing pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste), dams and water diversions, non-native plant and animal species (such as sport fish introduced by anglers), and loss of habitat because of residential and commercial development.

Other recent findings buttress these assertions. Drawing on government agency data, the conservation organization American Rivers reported this month that "large portions" of the Mississippi River are unsafe for swimming and similar activities. The group found "relatively surprising" levels of fecal coliform, indicating the presence of human and animal waste. …