Protecting our wetlands - it's the water

provided by Natural Resources Defense Council

hile the Clean Water Act has forced significant progress over the past twenty-five years in controlling water pollution from point sources such as industrial outfall pipes, one entire class of significant water pollution remains largely unaddressed. This major water quality problem is known as polluted runoff the phenomenon in which pollutants on agricultural fields, city streets, and suburban lawns are carried into rivers, lakes, and coastal waters by runoff from rain or snow.

Polluted runoff comes in various forms and causes a series of problems. Soil sediment from sources such as plowed fields and construction sites can destroy fish habitat and kill aquatic life. Pesticides swept from fields and lawns into water bodies can increase the risks of cancer and birth defects in human beings. Excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers applied to lawns and crops, feed algae blooms that can prevent people from swimming and can kill fish and other aquatic life by robbing the water of oxygen. Heavy metals such as lead and copper, which can come from mining and industrial processes, along with bacteria and pathogens from various sources also make their way into waterways through polluted runoff where they can cause a variety of human health problems.

Wetlands are a vital line of defense in protecting water quality from polluted runoff. Because of their crucial position between water and land, wetlands function as a buffer zone that intercepts and filters polluted runoff before it can degrade rivers, lakes, and coastal areas. Dense wetland vegetation improves the clarity and health of receiving waters by trapping sediment and pollutants. Wetland microorganisms and plants remove excess nutrients from water and store them in cell tissue, which ultimately decomposes into soil rich in organic matter, or return them to the atmosphere as harmless gas. Wetlands also filter pesticides and heavy metals from water, and microbial action taking place on wetland bottoms can reduce water-borne bacterial contamination significantly. By filtering these pollutants from America's waters, wetlands help to safeguard drinking water sources. They also improve the ability of rivers, lakes, and coastal waters to support other important uses, such as safe and clean swimming and fishing.

Despite their importance for protecting and restoring water quality, wetlands are an endangered resource in America. We have lost more than half our original wetlands in the lower forty-eight states, and these losses continue today. Legislation introduced in the last Congress would have accelerated wetland loss by dramatically weakening the Clean Water Act's protections for wetlands, thus compromising safeguards for water quality in America's rivers, lakes, and coastal areas. To protect and restore the quality of America's water, we must protect and restore America's wetlands.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 established a national goal of water quality which makes our waters safe for fishing and swimming. But nearly twenty-five years later, the goal of clean water has not been fully achieved. More than a third of all lakes, rivers and estuaries remain unsafe for fishing or swimming (EPA, 1995). Nearly one out of every three shellfish beds were closed or restricted during 1994 (EPA, 1996). In 1995, coastal and Great Lakes beaches were closed or had advisories posted warning against swimming on more than 3,522 occasions (Natural Resources Defense Council, 1996).

Because of the contaminants present in both surface waters and groundwater, the quality of our drinking water supply is also at risk. In 1993, community water systems supplied 26.5 million people with water that violated health-based standards . These violations included the presence of nitrates and toxic organic chemicals. A recent survey of utilities suggests that over 45 million Americans drink water supplied by systems that have found Crypiosporidium, a dangerous parasite, in their raw or treated water. Overall, medical researchers have estimated that there are 7.1 million cases of mild to moderate waterborne illness annually in the U.S. and another 560,000 cases that are moderate to severe.

Clean water is highly valued by the American public. When choosing a place to live, Money Magazine readers ranked Clean Water as the top concern in all but one year since 1990. Aside from causing health-related concerns, poor water quality threatens the viability of the $45 billion commercial fishing industry and the $380 billion recreational/tourism industry, whose most popular destinations are beaches, lakes, and rivers (EPA, 1996). According to an August 1995 Harris poll, 72 percent of Americans thought that laws and regulations designed to control water pollution were not strict enough.

Historically, the Clean Water Act has focused on reducing the most evident sources of pollution, such as industrial and municipal outflow pipes. These direct discharges are known as point sources because they can be traced to a specific point of origin. The polluter can be required to obtain a permit and uphold certain water quality standards for point source pollution. While the Clean Water Act has been largely effective in identifying pollution that flows from point sources such as pipes, polluted runoff- pollution that does not emerge from a pipe or other discrete point source - remains a largely unaddressed water quality problem.

Conservation of our nation's remaining wetlands provides one of the best means of defense against polluted runoff. The scientific link between functioning wetland systems and improved water quality is well established. Wetlands, commonly known as marshes or swamps, filter out pollutants from contaminated runoff through natural processes that improve the quality of water downstream. Wetlands are a crucial, natural mechanism for protecting and restoring water quality. Wetland protection must be an essential part of our nation's efforts to ensure clean water for all.