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EPA Report: Northwest Water Quality Better Than Most

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 25, 2002

A biennial report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that it is unsafe to fish or swim in 39 percent of the nation's rivers, 45 percent of lakes, 51 percent of estuaries, where salt water and fresh water mix, and 14 percent of the nation's ocean shorelines.

The report pointed to the presence in water bodies of bacteria, nutrients, metals and siltation as the leading causes of pollution and said there is still much to do to clean up the nation's waters.

The report, released in late September, is based on information collected in 2000 from state and territory 305(b) biennial water quality reports as required by the federal Clean Water Act. States collect the information and compare what they find to water quality standards they set, also in accordance with the Clean Water Act, to determine what water bodies support activities, such as swimming and fishing.

"Runoff from agricultural lands, municipal point sources (sewage treatment plants), and hydrologic modifications (such as channelization, flow regulation, and dredging) are primary sources of impairment," the report said. "Although the United States has made significant progress in cleaning up polluted waters over the past 30 years, much remains to be done to restore and protect the nation's waters."

Northwesterners who may believe their states' water bodies to be in better shape than other states are for the most part correct. Of the four northwest states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho reported better than average water quality in streams. However, only 18 percent of streams in Montana fully support aquatic life, while 51 percent fully support swimming, primarily due to flow and other alterations to rivers. Sixty-nine percent of lakes fail to support aquatic life and 60 percent fail the swimming test. Much of that pollution is caused by agricultural runoff. However, groundwater sources continue to be excellent. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality sets surface water quality limits, while the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology sets ground water limits.

Seventy-four percent of Oregon's rivers and 51 percent of its lakes have good enough water quality to fully support aquatic life. However, only 6 percent of its estuaries meet water quality standards. That still leaves 13,687 river miles of streams with impaired water quality. Oregon reports contaminants in some groundwater sources and is studying several areas of the state. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality sets water quality limits in the state.

Fifty-three percent of Idaho rivers meet water quality standards, but information on lakes was missing due to a pending lake beneficial use study. However, water quality could be better than reported because the state bases its water quality report on its 303(d) list of impaired streams and, according to the EPA report, that biases the outcome toward more impaired waters. Ninety percent of the state's residents use groundwater for domestic water supplies. Contaminants of greatest concern in that water supply, such as nitrates, pesticides and volatile organic compounds, are from farm uses. Idaho has chosen let the EPA set its water quality standards.

Washington said that 46 percent of its streams, 62 percent of its lakes and 21 percent of its estuaries meet all water quality benchmarks. Agriculture is the predominant cause of water quality impairments in both lakes and rivers, while agricultural and urban runoff, as well as municipal and industrial point sources of pollution, led the list of causes for impaired estuaries. Groundwater pollution comes from industrial and municipal points sources, mining and onsite sewage systems. The Washington Department of Ecology sets water quality limits in the state.

The EPA report reviewed about one-third of U.S. water bodies. That includes 19 percent of the 3,692,830 miles of rivers, 43 percent of 40,603,893 acres of lakes, and 36 percent of the 87,369 square miles of estuary. It also looked at 6 percent of ocean shorelines. The report pointed to agriculture and hydrologic and habitat modifications across the nation as the main sources of water quality impairment for rivers and streams. It added urban runoff and storm sewers to that list as the causes of impairments in lakes, ponds and reservoirs. For estuaries, it said pollution comes from municipal point sources, urban runoff and storm sewers, and industrial discharges.

On a positive note, the report said the rate of wetland loss over the past 40 years is slowing to an estimated loss per year of 58,500 acres per year.

The report is available on the EPA web site at>.

Mike O'Bryant
EPA Report: Northwest Water Quality Better Than Most
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 25, 2002

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