More than Half of U.S. Rivers and Two-Thirds of Lakes and Reservoirs Impaired

Washington, DC, Aug. 23, 2018  — Most American rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds are seriously polluted, and getting worse, according to federal figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These freshwaters increasingly are not potable or swimmable, and contain fish not fit to eat.

The latest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures indicate that –

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  • More than two-thirds (71%) of our lakes, reservoirs and ponds are impaired, covering more than 13 million acres, around the size of West Virginia;
  • More than half (53%) of rivers and streams are also impaired, stretching across more than 580,000 miles; and
  • Approximately 25% of rivers used for drinking water are impaired, while 22% of lakes and reservoirs that are drinking water sources are impaired.

True conditions may be much worse, as the EPA figures are based on “assessed” waters.  Only 31% of rivers and streams have been assessed while only 46% of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs are monitored.

“Florida’s current water quality emergency should be a national wakeup call,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, noting that the figures also do not account for new, emerging chemicals, many of which are damaging to aquatic life but for which there are no pollution standards. “We are losing the battle to protect the quality of America’s freshwaters.”

EPA found that the main sources for river pollution are agricultural runoff and development, with pathogens, sediments, and nutrients, as the top three contaminants. Lakes and ponds, by contrast, are afflicted most by mercury, PCBs, and nutrients, and more are afflicted by atmospheric deposition.

In 2012, EPA released a new database (called “How’s My Waterway?”) which then showed similar but better water conditions. The figures are drawn from state reports submitted to EPA.  Yet, EPA exerts little quality control over these reports, and reporting states often skew assessment methodologies to mask problems. Thus, states have little incentive to monitor water quality and, in many cases, have no dedicated budget for the task.

“Our current water quality system is premised on an absurd ‘no news is good news’ approach,” added PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing with concern to EPA plans to turn greater clean water responsibilities over to states.  “Many of America’s freshwaters are approaching a point of no return as functioning habitats. This is absolutely the worst moment for EPA to abandon its Clean Water Act oversight responsibilities.”

View the EPA water quality figures

Look at danger from emerging, unregulated water pollutants

See how states skew water assessments