From New England to the Gulf Coast to Puget Sound, Americans count on their abundant water systems as sources of sustenance and recreation. Especially in the summer, these beaches, rivers, and lakes are places for rejuvenation. They are also reminders that clean water is essential to many sectors of the economy.
But while the environmental health of such areas has generally improved in recent years - thanks to antipollution and habitat-restoration efforts - there are signs that all is not well in United States waters.
The US Environmental Protection Agency finds that 24 years after passage of the Clean Water Act - designed to restore all US waters so that they are "fishable and swimmable" - 40 percent of rivers, lakes, and streams surveyed still are too polluted for such activities.
"One out of 5 drinking-water systems reports violations of public-health standards," EPA administrator Carol Browner warned last week.
"One out of 3 shellfish beds is closed for harvest because of contamination," Ms. Browner said. "People in many communities are warned that to protect their health, they must limit the amount of fish they eat from their local river, their local lake."
Meanwhile, new information from a national network of biological-data centers indicates that two-thirds of freshwater mussels and crayfish dependent on aquatic or wetland habitat, and more than one-third of fish and amphibians, risk extinction.
According to information from the state agency-based Natural Heritage Program recently released by The Nature Conservancy, primary threats include: agricultural runoff (containing pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste), dams and water diversions, non-native plant and animal species (such as sport fish introduced by anglers), and loss of habitat because of residential and commercial development.
Other recent findings buttress these assertions. Drawing on government agency data, the conservation organization American Rivers reported this month that "large portions" of the Mississippi River are unsafe for swimming and similar activities. The group found "relatively surprising" levels of fecal coliform, indicating the presence of human and animal waste.
State agencies in Oregon and Washington just finished a six-year study of the lower Columbia River (the 146 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Bonneville Dam).
While this massive river system is in better shape than others in North America, there are signs of degradation. "There is strong evidence that fish and wildlife in the lower Columbia River basin are being exposed, via water, sediments, and prey, to a range of pollutants known to cause adverse effects," the report states. "These include heavy metals, dioxins and furans, PCBs, DDT ... and other pesticides."
"The use of the river by wildlife has also been seriously limited by loss and degradation of habitat," the report goes on.
Earlier this week, the National Marine Fisheries Service submitted to a federal district court in San Francisco its schedule for deciding when and how to protect two fish species - steelhead and cutthroat trout - that have been declining primarily because of habitat losses. And it's not just along the Pacific coast that such loss occurs. Steelhead migrate inland to central Idaho and Washington and to California's Central Valley, where they face the effects of pollution and development.
"These and other salmon and trout on the West Coast are in dire need of protection," says William Stelle, director of the fisheries service's regional office in Seattle.
Using biological data gathered by state agencies around the country, The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that has helped protect more than 50 million acres in the Americas and Asia, concludes that "freshwater aquatic animal species are the most imperiled group of species in the United States." The highest concentrations of such species are in the southeastern US and in arid portions of the West. For example, more than 22 percent of Alabama's aquatic animal species are at risk.
"Like canaries in coal mines, freshwater mussels, crayfishes, and fishes are indicator species," says John Sawhill, president of The Nature Conservancy. "When their numbers drop, they provide warning signs of problems with water quality and ecosystem stability."