Picture your favorite waterway. It could be a neighborhood creek your dog loves to splash in when you go for a walk. A shaded stream where you taught your kids the art of fishing. Or a slow-flowing river where you kayak with friends every Labor Day weekend.
Streams and rivers are the threads that tie our country together, not just through exploration but in our everyday reliance on these waters. Small streams flow to drinking water supplies for 117 million Americans – that’s one-third of our population. We fish, swim, and boat on these waters. Clean water sustains healthy communities, and companies large and small depend on clean water for healthy crops, a robust outdoor recreation economy, and economic growth.
Yet Americans have less information about the health of local streams and rivers than they do about the latest celebrity marriages. The majority of streams across the country are not regularly tested for water quality – or ever tested at all. What’s worse, the information we do have about stream health shows declines in water quality across the country.
But It Looks Clean
Our country has made great progress in stemming industrial pollution since the Clean Water Act
was passed in 1972. It’s been decades since the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the last time. With all this progress, haven’t our water quality problems solved?
In a word: no.
Threats to water quality today are just as serious as in decades past – they’re just harder to see. Polluted runoff from farm fields, parking lots, industrial sites, mining and extractions sites, and residential communities across the country flows unchecked and untreated into streams and rivers, carrying animal waste, bacteria, pesticides, fertilizers, heavy metals, and other pollutants through our communities. Sometimes we can see the effects, such as massive algal blooms that kill fish and pollute drinking water, but often it can be hard to tell where this water pollution starts.
There is limited information about stream health and water quality from the agencies tasked with protecting our waters, and the information they do have can be hard to find and hard to understand. Based on data available from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), our research shows that 80 percent of streams across America are not adequately monitored for pollution. Of the fraction of streams that are monitored, more than half do not meet basic safety standards for fishing, swimming, or as sources of drinking water.
With more than 3.5 million stream miles across the United States, testing water quality in every stream, every year, is labor intensive. Most state and local government agencies do not have the resources to meet this need. That’s why the Izaak Walton League launched the Clean Water Challenge
: to engage communities across America in closing the information gap and ensure citizens have access to more timely water quality data collected in more locations.