Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Taking Action to Reverse Pollution Running Into Streams

At the end of March the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft report on the quality of our nation’s rivers and streams.  The study found that 55% of the country’s rivers and streams do not support a healthy population of aquatic life and that the most common problem was too much nitrogen or phosphorus.  Any experienced home gardener knows that nitrogen and phosphorus are important nutrients and it is very common to add these to improve the growth of vegetables, flowers and grass.


The same is true for agricultural operations which often add large amounts of chemical fertilizers to grow crops.

Unfortunately what is good for terrestrial life is not good for aquatic life.  Excess nutrients have dramatic and sometimes catastrophic effects on aquatic food chains.  For example excessive levels of nitrogen can acidify freshwater systems, promote excessive plant life leading to eutrophication and shifts to pollution tolerant plants and animals, and accumulate in high enough concentrations to kill fish. (Harmful Effects of Nitrogen-Containing Fertilizers on Aquatic Systems)

The other major problem for rivers and streams is changes in land use along a stream.  Along thousands of miles of streams and rivers in the U.S. native, natural vegetation has been disturbed, removed or replaced.  The elimination of trees and native vegetation and the addition of impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots, homes, businesses and agricultural crops reduce both natural habitat and the ability of water to soak into the land during rainstorms.  Instead the water rushes into nearby streams. The streams become flashier—subject to sudden changes and dramatic increases in flow. The changes in the volume of water encourage erosion which creates a host of other problems for the fish and other aquatic life that live in streams and rivers.

So what can people do?

If you own a house with a yard

1)   Plant trees and shrubs to catch and slow the rain

2)   Find other ways to keep water from running off your property

3)   Add plants that put nitrogen in your soil naturally so chemical fertilizers aren’t needed.  For example, you can add nitrogen fixing clover to your lawn mix to provide nitrogen. Clover is also drought tolerant, resists pet urine and grows in bad soil. This means that it will not be possible to use lawn herbicides which kill clover (which is why clover has been removed from many lawn mixes). But that’s probably a good thing. Peas and other legumes such as pea shrubs also fix nitrogen.

Whether or not you have a yard, it is still possible to work actively in your community to educate and encourage others to take advantage of these opportunities to reduce pollution.

In addition, a town or city can adopt zoning laws that protect smalls streams http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/05/0504_smallstreams.html and wetlands http://webspace.ship.edu/cjwolt/main/JSWC.pdf which are both very effective at removing nitrogen.

Finally, let your elected officials know you care.

If cleaner streams and rivers are important, don’t overlook any opportunity to let your elected officials know this issue is important to you. Write a letter. Schedule a meeting.  Comment on proposed legislation. Write an editorial for your local newspaper.

Protecting and restoring rivers and streams is something everyone can help make happen.

Take action today!

Additional Resources

Stream restoration strategies for reducing river nitrogen loads

Model Ordinances for Regulating Wetlands and Riparian Habitats/Stream Buffers

Wetland and Shore land Zoning Tools

A Local Ordinance to Protect Wetland Functions

Wetland and Stream Buffers:  A Review of the Science and Regulatory Approaches to Protection

Ordinances: Using Ordinances to Protect Local Natural Resources

Protecting Stream and River Corridors: Creating Effective Local Riparian Buffer Ordinances

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