More than half of U.S. rivers "in poor condition for aquatic life"

After testing waterways at about 2,000 sites during 2008 and 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that 55 percent of rivers and streams in the country are “in poor condition for aquatic life.” One of the biggest problems was nutrient pollution from excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. Reduced vegetation cover near streams also contributed to poor water quality. Only 21 percent of U.S. river and stream length was judged to be in “good” condition, with another 23 percent in “fair” condition.

Compared to an EPA survey conducted in 2004, the latest data show a smaller percentage of rivers and streams in good condition and a higher percentage in poor condition.

An EPA summary of the key findings is after the jump. You can find more data on the National Aquatic Resource Surveys here, including this two-page fact sheet (pdf) and the full draft report (pdf). Iowa is part of the “temperate plains” region, discussed on pages 78 through 80 of that report. I’ve posted an excerpt below. Only 15 percent of rivers and streams in the temperate plains region were judged to be in good condition; 55 percent were in poor condition.

Iowa should reject the all-voluntary nutrient reduction strategy favored by agricultural interest groups. Given the awful state of our rivers and streams, we need some mandatory steps to reduce nutrient pollution, including numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus. Both EPA staff and environmental advocates in Iowa have called for strengthening the nutrient reduction strategy. Unfortunately, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has a firmly closed mind.  

EPA press release, March 26:

EPA Survey Finds More Than Half of the Nation’s River and Stream Miles in Poor Condition

WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the results of the first comprehensive survey looking at the health of thousands of stream and river miles across the country, finding that more than half – 55 percent – are in poor condition for aquatic life.

“The health of our Nation’s rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters depends on the vast network of streams where they begin, and this new science shows that America’s streams and rivers are under significant pressure,” said Office of Water Acting Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner. “We must continue to invest in protecting and restoring our nation’s streams and rivers as they are vital sources of our drinking water, provide many recreational opportunities, and play a critical role in the economy.”

The 2008-2009 National Rivers and Stream Assessment reflects the most recent data available, and is part of EPA’s expanded effort to monitor waterways in the U.S. and gather scientific data on the condition of the Nation’s water resources.

EPA partners, including states and tribes, collected data from approximately 2,000 sites across the country. EPA, state and university scientists analyzed the data to determine the extent to which rivers and streams support aquatic life, how major stressors may be affecting them and how conditions are changing over time.

Findings of the assessment include:

Nitrogen and phosphorus are at excessive levels. Twenty-seven percent of the nation’s rivers and streams have excessive levels of nitrogen, and 40 percent have high levels of phosphorus. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water-known as nutrient pollution-causes significant increases in algae, which harms water quality, food resources and habitats, and decreases the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Nutrient pollution has impacted many streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters for the past several decades, resulting in serious environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy.

Streams and rivers are at an increased risk due to decreased vegetation cover and increased human disturbance. These conditions can cause streams and rivers to be more vulnerable to flooding, erosion, and pollution. Vegetation along rivers and streams slows the flow of rainwater so it does not erode stream banks, removes pollutants carried by rainwater and helps maintain water temperatures that support healthy streams for aquatic life. Approximately 24 percent of the rivers and streams monitored were rated poor due to the loss of healthy vegetative cover.

Increased bacteria levels. High bacteria levels were found in nine percent of stream and river miles making those waters potentially unsafe for swimming and other recreation.

Increased mercury levels. More than 13,000 miles of rivers have fish with mercury levels that may be unsafe for human consumption. For most people, the health risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern, but some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing nervous system.

EPA plans to use this new data to inform decision making about addressing critical needs around the country for rivers, streams, and other waterbodies. This comprehensive survey will also help develop improvements to monitoring these rivers and streams across jurisdictional boundaries and enhance the ability of states and tribes to assess and manage water quality to help protect our water, aquatic life, and human health. Results are available for a dozen geographic and ecological regions of the country.

More information:

Excerpt from the section of the National Rivers and Streams Assessment on the Temperate Plains:

The Temperate Plains ecoregion includes Iowa; the eastern Dakotas; western Minnesota; portions of Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska; and the flat lands of western Ohio, central Indiana, Illinois, and southeastern Wisconsin. This ecoregion covers about 342,200 square miles, or 11.4%, of the continental U.S., with approximately 7,900 square miles under federal ownership. Many of the rivers in this ecoregion drain into the Upper Mississippi Ohio, and Great Lakes watersheds.

Much of this ecoregion is now primarily arable cultivated land, including field crops such as corn, wheat, and alfalfa as well as hog and cattle production. Crops and grazing have reduced natural riparian vegetative cover, increased sediment yield, and introduced pesticides and herbicides. […]

Of the indicators of stress measured for the NRSA [National Rivers and Streams Assessment], the most widespread in the Temperate Plains ecoregion are nitrogen, phosphorus, riparian vegetative cover, riparian disturbance, and streambed sediments. Compared to least-disturbed conditions for this ecoregion:

– Nitrogen is at high levels in 58% of river and stream length, medium levels in 13%, and low levels in 29%.

– Phosphorus is at high levels in 31% of river and stream length, medium levels in 24%, and low levels in 46%.

– Riparian vegetative cover is rated as poor in 24% of river and stream length, fair in 26%, and good in 50%.

– Riparian disturbance is at high levels in 16% of river and stream length, medium levels in 56%, and low levels in 29%.

– Streambed sediments are rated poor in 14% of river and stream length, fair in 36%, and good in 50%.

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