Our water in the US is supplied by lots of sources. Groundwater makes up about 25% of water used, while surface sources like rivers, lakes, or reservoirs make up the remaining 75%. Most of our water is used for thermoelectric purposes, irrigation and public supplies (2005). But water is also important for industry and farming, since it can be used for almost every step of producing everyday goods like food, paper, chemicals, petroleum, or metals. The water cycle doesn’t end there, though. The water used in production needs to flow somewhere, and a lot of times it goes back into rivers.
In a 2004 fact sheet by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US water sources were declared too impaired by pollution to support their use: ‘In 2004, states reported that about 44% of assessed stream miles, 64% of assessed lake acres, and 30% of assessed bay and estuarine square miles were not clean enough to support uses such as fishing and swimming. Less than 30% of U.S. waters were assessed by the states for this report. Leading causes of impairment included pathogens, mercury, nutrients, and organic enrichment/low dissolved oxygen. Top sources of impairment included atmospheric deposition, agriculture, hydrologic modifications, and unknown or unspecified sources.’
Knowing the numbers is one thing, but knowing what that means for the general public is another. What does it mean to live near a contaminated river or reservoir? If the pollution exceeds a certain level of concentration, it means that your community’s main water source is not fit to drink. More than 100,000 miles of rivers and streams in the US have poor water quality due to factory farming. One single agricultural company, Tyson Foods, causes 104 million pounds of pollution in our surface sources of water within four years. One can only imagine the impact that the whole of US agriculture must have on our water supplies – not to mention other industries and big oil.
With public awareness growing and environmental movements on the rise, how can industrial and agricultural pollution still happen at this large scale? A big portion of water pollution is backed by outdated policies or lack of those that control the amount of pollution. Policies that do exist are enforced poorly and inconsistently which lets industries bypass or ignore laws. Unplanned industrial growth and a number of small scale industries with lack of funding for better technologies influence water quality as well. Often times, it is lower income and marginalized communities suffering the most.
The main issue that stems from water pollution is the impact on health. Polluted water can contain chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides, industrial wastewater, heavy metals, and even radioactive waste. The impacts on communities can be dreadful, and ecosystems are being harmed beyond repair. Failing ecosystems put a strain on many parts of our modern day lives. Fish living in contaminated waters can easily ingest pollutants and carry them into the natural food chain. Habitats are being lost and species are on the brink of extinction, major disasters like oil spills damage public and private properties. The list of consequences seems endless. We all know that coming in contact with these pollutants can cause diseases like cancer, painful rashes, issues with liver and kidney, and disturbance of the nervous system. Children are especially vulnerable: In the Flint water crisis, officials found lead levels in the water causing low IQ, shortened attention span, and increases in violence and antisocial
behavior. It can adversely affect major organs of the body and the effects are irreversible.
All these facts might feel almost insurmountable. But let’s focus on what we can do to change the way people look at our water, and to reduce pollution and the effect it has on our lives. There are many approaches to help keep our water sources clean.
Look at your own water footprint and the footprint of the food you’re eating and the goods you’re using. See what you can change about your lifestyle that would reduce it. See how we impact our water sources.
Look for companies that use environmentally friendly methods and sell biodegradable products instead of chemical cleaners and harming industrial practices. Buy local.
Advocate for your cause. If you change opinions of your friends and family, and if you educate them about water and all the issues revolving around it, they might do the same. It only needs a small number of people to start a movement. Spread the word.
Join an organization, donate or volunteer. See what you can do in your community. Join CHEJ and help communities affected by pollution
Learn about our water sources and how they are used, who influences them and who uses how much.
Check out these links to learn more:
By Gregory Kolen II. Environmental justice is an issue that affects everyone, but those who bear the brunt of it are often the most vulnerable