Summer Swimming Guide: Don't Jump In
What's Lurking In U.S. Lakes, Rivers & Streams? A New Report Says E Coli, Pesticides, Fertilizers, PCBs, Toxic Algae & More.
If you follow me on social media, you may have seen I’ve been in the great state of Maine, fighting PFAS contamination. ICYMI, the state’s CDC issued a warning this week to avoid eating freshwater fish from seven Maine bodies of water because of dangerous levels of forever chemicals.
When I posted this headline on Twitter, what struck me was the comment section, as people talked about the polluted rivers in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and more.
Water, water everywhere and not a drop to fish in, swim in, or drink. WTF?!
With the weather warming up and summer just around the bend, many are making plans to visit their favorite watering holes.
Not so fast….
A new report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) has found that more than 50 percent of tested U.S. rivers, lakes, and ponds are heavily polluted.
“Today, almost four decades after the Clean Water Act’s deadline for ‘fishable and swimmable’ waters across the U.S., 51 percent of assessed river and stream miles across the U.S.—more than 700,000 miles of waterways—remain impaired with pollution, as well as 55 percent of lake acres and 26 percent of estuary miles,” according to the EIP report.
More than 700,000 miles of America’s rivers, streams, and creeks and more than 11 million acres of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs are so excessively polluted that they are classified as “impaired.”
“The Clean Water Act should be celebrated on its 50th birthday for making America’s waterways significantly cleaner,” said Eric Schaeffer, EIP executive director and former director of civil enforcement at EPA in a statement. “However, we need more funding, stronger enforcement, and better control of farm runoff to clean up waters that are still polluted after half a century. Let’s give EPA and states the tools they need to finish the job—we owe that much to our children and to future generations.”
The U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The law promised fishable and swimmable waters no later than 1983, and the removal of all discharges of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985. It was inspired in part by the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, which burst into flames in 1969. Images really can tell a thousand words, and the dramatic photos made headlines throughout the country.
How did a body of water ignite into flames? A Time magazine article described the river as so saturated with industrial waste and sewage that it “oozed rather than flowed.” That sight sparked major reforms and a newfound need for environmental action, which included the passage of the Clean Water Act and the creation of state and federal environmental protection agencies.
Well, here we are 50 years later, and the act has not lived up to its ambitious promises. That’s all thanks to the law’s lax controls for runoff farm pollution, along with budget cuts to federal and state environmental agencies, failure to enforce pollution limits, and ineffective cleanup plans called “Total Maximum Daily Loads” or TMDLs. These regulations are supposed to establish the amount of pollutants that can enter into waterways while maintaining water quality standards, but are often get sidestepped by agricultural and developmental interests.
A study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined a sampling of TMDLs throughout the country, concluding that a majority of them were lacking in substance. The GAO investigators examined 25 TMDLs and found that almost half of them, “contained vague or no information on actions that need to be taken, or by whom,” to clean up waterways.
State officials interviewed by GAO said that in the case of at least two thirds of TMDLs, there was not adequate funding or landowner participation to make the cleanup plans effective. About 80 percent of the TMDLs were not meeting their targets for reducing runoff pollution.
State By State
The Clean Water Act requires states to submit periodic reports on the condition of their rivers, streams, lakes, and estuaries to the U.S. EPA. Based on the latest reports, about half of the river and stream miles and lake acres that have been studied across the U.S. are so polluted they are classified as “impaired.”
The 75-page report includes detailed maps and charts with the most recent available water pollution data from all U.S. states. Here are a few states with particularly worrisome water woes.
Florida, no surprise seeing you on the list. Just beyond the beautiful beaches, pollution looms large. The Sunshine State ranks first in the U.S. for total acres of lakes classified by states as impaired for swimming and aquatic life (873,340 acres), and second for total lake acres listed as impaired for any use (935,808 acres).
Florida also has the second most total square miles of impaired estuaries (2,533 square miles), behind only Louisiana.
Not only does water pollution threaten Florida’s reputation as a vacation hot spot, but it also jeopardizes the health of the Everglades, home to a variety of rare and endangered species, including crocodiles, panthers, and manatees. In the Everglades and throughout Florida’s lakes, harmful toxic algae blooms have become an almost annual event fed by fertilizer runoff from farms and subdivisions.
Next up, California. A big state with even bigger water quality issues. While the mega drought conditions get the most media coverage, the state’s rivers, lakes, and estuaries also have some of the highest pollution impairment numbers in the country.
In fact, drought is a major driver of downstream pollution problems in the state. In drought, low flows and elevated water temperatures reduce oxygen levels in water bodies throughout California, which can lead to damaging algal blooms and increased water salinity.
California spends around $10 billion to control water pollution each year, most of which goes toward improving wastewater treatment facilities and other direct sources of pollution. The build-up of salt in many streams and basins, which can also be drought-driven, increases water-treatment costs.
“One thing that unites California is that runoff is the largest source of pollution to our rivers, creeks, bays, and coastline,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director for the Los Angeles Waterkeeper and president of the California Coastkeeper Alliance in the report. “From the combined stormwater and sewage infrastructure in the San Francisco Bay Area that results in chronic sewage spills during storm events, to the agricultural runoff from massive farms that contaminates our central valley and coast, to the heavily concretized and channelized cities in Southern California whose infrastructure acts as a superhighway sending a toxic soup untreated urban runoff into local waters, it’s major problem.”
Louisiana, home to Cancer Alley an industrial hub along the state’s river corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, is another problematic place.
Toxic water pollution from the petroleum and chemical industries taints the state’s abundant waterways and dampens the state’s tourism and outdoor recreation industries.
The Pelican State has the largest expanse of estuaries classified as impaired than any other in the U.S., with 5,574 square miles, or 92 percent of those assessed, listed as impaired for any use, according to the most recent state report to EPA.
A report from Environment America found Louisiana to be the third worst state in America for toxic releases into waterways, after Indiana and Texas.
Speaking of Indiana, let’s talk about picturesque farmland and swimming holes with rope swings. All that farmland contributes to tens of thousands of miles of polluted rivers, as farm runoff is a main driver of water pollution in the Hoosier State and many other places.
Based on the most recent reports provided by the state to EPA, Indiana ranks first in the U.S. in the total number of river and stream miles classified as impaired for swimming and water-contact recreation.
Of 33,559 assessed river and stream miles in the state, 24,395 (or 73 percent) are listed as impaired for recreation, meaning they have so much fecal bacteria and other contaminants that they are not safe for swimming, tubing, or other water contact activities.
“Indiana’s waters have benefited from the Clean Water Act, but unfortunately, they also illustrate some of the gaps in the law,” said Dr. Indra Frank, the environmental health & water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council in the report. “We have seen persistent, unresolved impairments, especially for E coli bacteria in our rivers and streams, in part from industrial agricultural runoff. And unfortunately, we have also seen examples of Clean Water Act permits used to send water contaminated with coal ash into our rivers. We need to halt pollution like this.”
And then there’s Iowa, America’s hog capital, and one of the most unhealthy areas in the U.S. to swim in rivers and streams.
That’s in part because of the vast amounts of hog waste and farm runoff polluting the state’s waterways. According to the most recent state data, Iowa has the fourth highest percentage in the U.S. of assessed river and stream miles and lake acres classified as impaired for water contact recreation.
The state reports that 93 percent of its 4,921 miles of assessed waterways are impaired for swimming and recreation. Eighty three percent of Iowa’s 83,233 assessed acres of lakes are also listed by the state as impaired for water contact recreation.
More than 30 million acres of Iowa’s land, or over 85 percent, is farmland and the Hawkeye State is the leading pork-producing state in the nation, with nearly one-third of the country’s hogs raised there. The state’s 23 million pigs produce as much feces as 83 million people.
Manure spills at Iowa’s hog farms are very damaging. The state has suffered nearly 500 manure and fertilizer spills and releases since 2011, killing nearly two million fish.
Residents of Des Moines, Iowa’s largest city, live under constant threat of their drinking water being contaminated with nitrates from upstream farm fertilizer runoff.
Back in the summer of 2020, the Des Moines Water Works, which serves more than 500,000 people, was forced to start planning emergency measures due to high nitrate levels in the utility’s two main water sources, the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers.
After failing for years to convince farmers upstream to reduce fertilizer runoff, the utility is now planning to spend up to $30 million to drill new drinking water wells and mix in purer water from these wells when the rivers have especially high nitrate levels.
And then there’s Delaware, a tiny state with big pollution problems. The state is known for its Atlantic beaches and wildlife refuges, but it’s also home to the chemical industry, factory farms, slaughterhouses, and suburban sprawl that contribute to significant amounts of water pollution.
Delaware has the highest percentage of impaired rivers and streams of any state in the U.S., according to its most state recent reports filed with EPA, with 97 percent of the state’s 1,104 miles of assessed waterways listed as impaired for one or more use.
Delaware also reports that 100 percent of its 775 square miles of assessed estuaries are impaired.
Pollutants in Delaware’s rivers and streams include fecal bacteria, excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), as well as pesticides, PCBs, and dioxins.
According to the EPA, runoff from farms and suburban and urban areas is the biggest cause of pollution in the state’s waterways.
“Too many people here have no access to clean water coming out of the tap, especially in our poor and minority communities,” said Maria Payan, an activist with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project in the report. “The fact that Delaware has the highest percentage of impaired rivers and streams in all of the U.S. shows there is a clear failure to protect public health here.”
It’s time for the EPA to step up and do its job by enforcing the mandates set in the Clean Water Act. The clashing patchwork of state methods for monitoring and appraising waterways contributes to an ineffective distribution of funding and cleanup efforts. We need to do better not just for us, but for future generations.
Want to know if it’s safe to swim in your state’s waterways? Check out the full EIP report here.
Feeling frustrated about all the pollutants lurking in our waterways? Get involved with a local waterkeeper alliance or nonprofit to see how you can help.
Don’t forget states are set to receive billions of dollars from Congress’ recent passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Let your governors and state lawmakers know this funding needs to help with water pollution control efforts.