Thursday, March 28, 2013

Stunning Fact: 55% Of US Streams Are in Poor Condition But What Does Fracking Have To Do With It?

The EPA has just released the draft of its first ever survey of the nation's streams.  While 21% of streams were found to have good water quality, it is hard to conclude the results of the survey is good news.

The EPA survey finds 55% have poor water quality due to pollution.  Not too surprisingly, there are significant regional differences, with streams in the East generally in the worst condition.

So what's the main causes of poor water quality? The EPA finds that 27% of streams are polluted with nitrogen; 40% with phosphorus; and 9% had bacteria levels from sewage that made them potentially unfit for swimming.  That is yucky!

Mercury contaminated fish were found in 13,000 miles of streams, and 24% of streams were rated poor due to loss of vegetative cover or buffers. The importance of providing streams with a vegetative buffer is confirmed yet again.

Four of the five leading causes of water pollution in the EPA survey--nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria, and mercury--have nothing to do with gas development or "fracking."  In fact, gas displacing coal in electricity generation is a major reason why mercury pollution and other toxic air pollution emissions are dropping sharply in the USA.

The fifth cause of poor water quality--loss of vegetative cover or buffers for streams--is caused by development of land up to the edge of streams.  At most, gas development would be a tiny contribution to this massive, national problem. Moreover the public attention on gas drilling, at least in Pennsylvania, fueled major new requirements for stream buffers.

Pennsylvania adopted in November, 2010 a buffer rule for 22,000 miles of "High Quality" streams within the Commonwealth.  The rule restricts development of all types--not just gas drilling--within 150 feet of streams and is among the nation's most protective buffer requirements. I had the privilege of championing that regulation that was opposed by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and many other business organizations but supported by drinking water utilities and environmental organizations.

Arguably the leading polluter of water in Pennsylvania is acid mine drainage from abandoned coal piles and coal mines.  Acidification has devastated about 5,000 miles of streams in the Commonwealth and requires tens of billions of dollars to address.  Yet,  nationally acidification is not a major source of pollution--damaging about 1% of streams.

The draft EPA stream survey is full of interesting data and is well-worth reading.  Hopefully, the survey will help the public and media to better understand what is the water quality of the nation's streams and what are and what are not the leading causes of poor water quality.  Facts should matter.

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