By Melissa Mullineaux, Summer Intern, ASWM
I have been seeing a lot of cases of water contamination in the news lately from around the country and even around the world. In Russia, on September 7th, there was a report that the Daldykan River near the city of Norilsk had turned a deep burgundy or blood red color. It was reported by some residents who posted pictures of the river on their social media accounts; one in particular can be seen in the picture below. Sources were saying that residents were blaming a leaky slurry pipeline of the Norilsk Nickel plant located close to the river that may have been expelling a chemical pollution into the water.
On September 20th, The Los Angeles Times reported on an ongoing issue affecting the Navajo Nation in Arizona and particularly in Shiprock, New Mexico. The article discusses an incident last year when runoff from a gold mine in Colorado, full of chemicals and heavy metals, ran into the Animas and San Juan rivers turning the water orange. Downstream, the polluted water contaminated vast amounts of the Navajo Nations’ farms, crops, and livestock functions. Some of the crops destroyed, like corn, are required for Navajo religious practices, so this has negatively affected them in more ways than just their livelihood. The chemicals have seeped into the ground soils and continue to cause havoc. With every rain fall comes a resurgence of the toxic pollution. The tribe remains dealing with intermittent access to water and now is experiencing some health problems to boot! Pictures of the orange water can be seen here and here.
Another mine, this time in Yellowknife, Canada, which operated between 1948 and 2004, emitted 20,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide into the air which fell onto the surrounding ecosystem and into Pocket Lake located close by. According to the CBC News article “irreversible damage” was done to the soil and the water in the surrounding area. Another instance in Prince Albert, Sask., Canada, a CBC News report on Aug 15th, discussed test outcomes after an oil spill showing results that exceed “national guidelines for protecting aquatic life.”
An article from the Washington Post on August 19th discusses “America’s most toxic Rivers” describing one river, the Passaic River in Newark, New Jersey, as a “noxious mess that floats dead fish and trash” and has signs telling people “not to eat the carcinogenic fish and crabs that come from it.” Another recent article outlines the many environmental issues, one after another, affecting Florida’s drinking water and beaches. And, yet another article that describes the economic and health issues the Crow Nation is dealing with in Montana due to their contaminated drinking water.
One of the most shocking articles I have come across is from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that discussed research released by the U.S. Geological Survey. The study indicated there were a large amount of skin and liver tumors in white sucker fish within the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers. The article states “the exact cause of the tumors is not known, but previous research has suggested that exposure to certain chemicals can cause liver tumors in fish, according to research published this week in the Journal of Fish Diseases.”
Then there are all of the articles discussing recent instances of ground water contamination all over the globe, such as Texas that found 276 occurrences of groundwater contamination within the last year, and another article discussing a recent study that found “more than half of South Asia’s ground water [is] too contaminated to use!” These are just SOME of the articles I have come across within this last month about toxic and contaminated drinking and ground water.
Gosh! It can all seem so overwhelming! And discouraging…
I keep reminding myself, however, that these are all reasons why it is important to look at what society can do to counter these tragic issues and look toward restoring water quality. Besides avoiding the occurrences of toxic contamination in the first place, it may be in our best interest to look at the importance of protecting and restoring wetlands as one option in reversing this problem. As many know, wetlands trap sediments and absorb pollutants such as heavy metals and toxins as well as excess nutrients that cause eutrophication. They help clean water that may enter groundwater or drinking water supplies.
In fact, some cities in the U.S., such as Columbia, Missouri and San Francisco, CA have constructed artificial wetlands as part of their wastewater treatment infrastructure to filter water and sewer waste. One can now find manuals and guides online to help design wetland wastewater systems. Perhaps people are beginning to grasp ahold of the importance of wetlands in preserving water quality. Maybe the word will get out that either protecting the wetlands we have left or putting more resources into constructing or restoring wetlands in pivotal areas around water sources can play a role in the future protection of potable water.
One piece of information that has turned my discouragement into hope is that there has already been progress made toward the improvement and preservation of wetlands in the U.S. In fact, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) “the period between 1997 and 2007 was the first decade in modern history that saw an increase in palustrine and estuarine [P&E] wetlands (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012). Since 1997, the trend has been a gradual overall increase in P&E wetlands” (though they mention an exception in the “eastern third of the country” that is “still experiencing wetland loss”).
Some of this progress has been due to improved regulations and targeted initiatives to strengthen wetland programs and encourage wetland restoration. One such initiative, for example is EPA’s Enhancing State and Tribal Programs (ESTP) effort to provide technical and financial support to states and tribes to build their wetland programs so that they are able to better protect wetland resources across the country. Two ESTP core elements are particularly relevant to this discussion, which are wetland water quality standards and wetland monitoring and assessment.
Although I began this blog by highlighting some pretty discouraging information about the pollution of waters across the globe, there are also many uplifting aspects about this issue, such as the gradual increase in wetlands within the last two decades and the increased initiatives taken to further improve wetland quantity and quality. It is exciting to be a part of the solution and to know that the longer these programs are in place, the better things will get. Stay tuned for some more blogs from Counting Cattails so that you may follow me in my journey as an intern here at the Association of State Wetland Managers.