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Past Pollution Still Fouls Many of Today's Waterways

Streams and rivers in the United States show signs of neglect that goes back to the Industrial Revolution

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Just how many rivers in the US are in trouble?

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According to Geoffrey Grubbs, director of the Assessment and Watershed Protection Division at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US has roughly 2 million miles of rivers and streams. But because such a large number is hard to monitor, only one-third is measured for water quality. Of that fraction, about 240,000 river miles are not meeting water-quality standards, which the EPA defines as fishable or swimmable.

The good news, Mr. Grubbs says, is that most of the nation's water is meeting EPA objectives. He comes to this conclusion because many of the 2 million river miles not measured are in Alaska and are likely to be clean. ``The bad news is that 240,000 miles is a lot of water,'' he says, adding that agricultural runoff is the biggest cause of the pollution.

RIVER advocates are looking to the Clean Water Act, which is up for reauthorization this year, to address some of the nonpoint-source pollution problems. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate plan to introduce a bill this fall.

``The debates will be very thorny because to address nonpoint-source pollution you have to deal with land-use issues,'' Coyle says. ``That's a little different from telling a factory it can't dump stuff in the rivers.''

But Grubbs is more optimistic regarding land-use issues, especially for agriculture. ``So much of what farmers do is governed by the contracts that they create with the [US] Department of Agriculture for the kind of crops they grow and the cost-share programs the USDA has to help them with land-management practices,'' he says. Changes in agricultural practices will depend somewhat on the USDA ``and what it does with farmers to help them do the right thing,'' he says. ``There's some very positive stuff going on in that regard.''

Coyle says one way to slow agricultural runoff is to have narrow strips of land along rivers that act as natural filters. A handful of states have already enacted laws requiring new development to be set back from rivers a certain number of feet.

Other issues will also be hotly debated in the Clean Water Act, Coyle says. Those include addressing urban sewage-treatment systems that use only one pipe for sewage and storm-water runoff: After a heavy rain, the overflow gets flushed into the rivers. Environmentalists will also push for measuring a river's water quality by examining biological criteria - determining the health of the wetlands, fishes, and other creatures. Currently, scientists take a chemical analysis of the water to determine how many parts per million of certain chemicals it has. ``One of the things that would help us better understand what we're doing to the natural environment is to employ not just chemical criteria ... but looking at the entire surrounding of the water,'' Coyle says.

``The Clean Water Act reauthorization would be a very important tool,'' Cohen says. ``It would be of great value just as the first incarnation of the Clean Water Act was the primary stimulus of ... dealing with point-source pollution.''