Fisheries Conservation photo

It’s official: America’s streams and rivers are in serious trouble.

This isn’t from a green group; it’s from the Environmental Protection Agency, which this week released its first comprehensive survey looking at the health of thousands of streams across the nation. The 2008-2009 National Rivers and Stream Assessment found that more than half of those systems – 55-percent – are “in poor conditions for aquatic life.”

That, of course, includes fish.

“The health of our nation’s rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters depends on the vast network of streams where they begin, and this new science shows that America’s streams and rivers are under significant pressure,” said Nancy Stoner, the EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Water. “We must continue to invest in protecting and restoring our nation’s streams and rivers as they are vital sources of our drinking water, provide many recreational opportunities, and play a critical role in the economy.”

Since the field work in this survey was completed in 2009, it’s safe to say the conditions of most of these troubled waters has worsened, because riparian areas have been largely without Clean Water Act protections since 2006 when the Supreme Court ruled Congress never intended to include those habitats – or isolated and temporary wetlands like the prairie potholes – in the original act.

Congress could have quickly restored those safeguards by passing a law saying, “Yes we did.” But powerful development and agriculture interests have trumped sportsmen on this issue ever since.

The recent EPA survey found a laundry list of ills that have degraded the quality of most of America’s streams, including:

Nitrogen and phosphorus are at excessive levels. Twenty-seven percent of the nation’s rivers and streams have excessive levels of nitrogen, and 40 percent have high levels of phosphorus. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water–known as nutrient pollution–causes significant increases in algae, which harms water quality, food resources and habitats, and decreases the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Nutrient pollution has impacted many streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters for the past several decades, resulting in serious environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy.
Streams and rivers are at an increased risk due to decreased vegetation cover and increased human disturbance.** These conditions can cause streams and rivers to be more vulnerable to flooding, erosion, and pollution. Vegetation along rivers and streams slows the flow of rainwater so it does not erode stream banks, removes pollutants carried by rainwater, and helps maintain water temperatures that support healthy streams for aquatic life. Approximately 24 percent of the rivers and streams monitored were rated poor due to the loss of healthy vegetative cover.

Increased bacteria levels. High bacteria levels were found in nine percent of stream and river miles, making those waters potentially unsafe for swimming and other recreation.

Increased mercury levels. More than 13,000 miles of rivers have fish with mercury levels that may be unsafe for human consumption. For most people, the health risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern, but some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby’s or young child’s developing nervous system.

Congressmen who have been blocking the restoration of Clean Water Act protections to stream sides for almost a decade had better wake up, or we could face a serious problem in fisheries–not to mention drinking water.