Have you ever wondered about the water quality of the streams or lakes in your community? Given ongoing discussions of environmental pollution, it is natural for people to question the health of their local waterways. Is the lake safe for swimming? How about fishing? Can I toss a stick into the creek and give my dog the pure joy of fetching it without her getting sick? In an attempt to provide local water quality information, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has introduced a new online tool called “How’s My Waterway?” While the tool suffers from a lack of data and some definition of “polluted” that are counter-intuitive, it represents a good start by EPA in communicating waterway quality data in understandable terms.
A Quick-reference, Non-technical Service
“How’s My Waterway?” can be accessed using a smart phone, tablet or desktop computer at www.epa.gov/mywaterway. Users can direct the tool to identify their location and provide water quality data within a five mile radius; alternatively, users can input a zip code or place name to retrieve water quality information for the specified area.
Information provided by the “How’s My Waterway?” tool comes from water monitoring data submitted to EPA by states under the requirements of the 40 year-old Clean Water Act. Using the new online tool, a user can discover whether or not a waterway has been assessed (many still have not been, according to this EPA Q&A,) what pollution may exist, the significance of those pollutants and what, if anything, has been done to improve water quality.
Using the Tool
Let’s say you live in zip code 66952, which corresponds to Lebanon, Kansas, the town nearest the geographic center of the US. You type your zip code in the appropriate field on the opening page of “How’s My Waterway?” at www.epa.gov/mywaterway. The output is a list of nine “Waters Nearest 66952, KS.” Five of these waterways are listed “unassessed/condition unknown” and four are shown as “assessed and polluted.”
The How’s my Waterway? tool includes some categories of pollution that may seem counter-intuitive. For example, abnormal stream flow due to water removal for irrigation, water supply, industrial withdrawals or dams is sufficient to designate a waterway as polluted. Acidity, another pollution category, is influenced by natural rocks and soils, as well as human sources. A stream may be designated polluted if the channel has been artificially altered or if native vegetation is removed from shores and banks. Metals and radiation, other categories of pollution, may enter waterways from natural erosion of soil and rocks, but their presence could cause the stream to be designated “polluted.”
The various categories of water pollution used in the How’s my Waterway? tool are defined by EPA in a Pollutant Summaries document.
Clicking on the first listed polluted waterway, “East Oak Creek,” takes you to a page displaying technical reports for the waterway. You learn that the creek is affected by metals, nutrients and organic enrichment/oxygen depletion and another category called “salinity/total dissolved solids/chlorides/sulfates.” Clicking on these category names yields general, plain-language information on those pollutants. Clicking on “Technical Report” for each of those categories yields specific information about those pollutants in East Oak Creek. For example, you learn that the particular metal polluting East Oak Creek is selenium. From the general discussion you learn that at high levels, all metals can be toxic to aquatic animals and humans.
Back to the first page on East Oak Creek, you scroll down the page to learn from “What’s Being Done,” that in the case of this waterway, no Runoff Control Projects are available.
A Good First Step
Although “How’s My Waterway” does not tell us directly whether it’s safe to swim, fish or play in East Oak Creek, Kansas, the tool does provide some useful information. To learn more about restrictions in using East Oak Creek or other listed waterways, one might contact the state department of environmental management, local university or health department.
EPA is to be commended for producing a tool that takes a good first step toward informing Americans of the water quality of water bodies in their “neck of the woods.” Continual updates and further improvements will make it even better.
Bruce Bernard, PhD, is President of SRA International, Inc., Associate Editor of the International Journal of Toxicology and lives in the Neck District of Dorchester County, Maryland.