New Survey, Same Evidence: Our Streams and Rivers Are Dangerously Polluted

The Obama administration must act swiftly to protect our clean water


Liz Judge, Earthjustice, (202) 797-5237

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an extensive survey reporting that more than half of our nation’s stream and river miles are severely polluted, or listed as “impaired” or in “poor condition.” This is the most dire in a string of water assessments over the last 20 years that have reported high percentages of water impairment and pollution in the United States.

An embankment full of debris and trash in the Anacostia River.  (Raviya Ismail / Earthjustice)

The following are the numbers reported in the last several stream and river assessments:

  • 1994: 36% of our streams and rivers were reported partially impaired or fully impaired.
  • 1996: 36% of waters assessed did not meet water quality standards. Very few rivers were assessed (approximately 19%), so the reality could have been worse than reported.
  • 1998: 40% of waters assessed did not meet water quality standards.
  • 2000: 44% of waters assessed did not meet water quality standards.
  • 2002: 45% of assessed rivers and streams were listed as impaired.

According to assessment released today:

An algae outbreak in Florida’s Santa Fe River in May of 2012. Local health authorities recommended that no one swim, fish, or drink water near the outbreak.  (John Moran)

  • 55% of our river and stream miles are in poor condition.
  • 27% of the nation’s rivers and streams have excessive levels of nitrogen, and 40% have high levels of phosphorus. These nutrient pollutants cause toxic green slime outbreaks that are harmful to public health.
  • 24% of the rivers and streams monitored were rated poor due to the loss of healthy habitat surrounding them.
  • 9% of assessed river and stream miles were found unsafe for swimming and recreation due to high bacteria levels.
  • More than 13,000 miles of rivers have fish with mercury levels that may be unsafe for human consumption.

The following is a statement from Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez:

“The EPA and our nation’s leaders have known for years that we have a very serious dirty water problem in the United States. The more we assess, the worse the picture gets for our nation’s waterways. If you look at this grim report against several other similarly grave reports over the last 20 years, you will see that we can’t afford inaction any longer. When more than half of our nation’s waters are listed in ‘poor condition’—and these are the same waters that our families rely on for drinking water and the same streams and rivers that we enjoy for recreation—it is time for serious action.

“Until our nation’s leaders commit to cleaning up our waters, our communities and families will pay the price with our health. And until we get a handle on actually regulating water pollution from the biggest industrial polluters, such as the agriculture and mining industries, every two years we will see this dreadful picture of 50 percent or more of our nation’s water grievously polluted.

“Right now, there are smart, common-sense policies that will clean up our waterways and keep us safe from harmful pollution just sitting at the White House waiting for final approval. We need the Obama administration to finalize its guidance to restore Clean Water Act protections to all waters the United States, because as this survey shows, we simply can’t afford to lose any more of our crucial waters to pollution and contamination.”

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