The EPA has now finished that survey. The results are unsettling.
Fifty-five percent of U.S. rivers and streams are in poor condition for aquatic life, according to the EPA. And it gets worse.
In the Southern Appalachians, of which Calhoun County is part, 65 percent of our streams fall into the “poor” category. The worst, however, is south of us — the Coastal Plain — where 71 percent of the waterways do not meet minimal requirements.
Although Alabama falls into both of those regions, one would have to dig into the details of the report to find which of our rivers were surveyed and those results. However, the major culprits causing the problem nationally are readily evident here.
First, streams in poor condition have excessive levels of fertilizers nitrogen and phosphorus. Although agricultural operations are usually to blame, any trip along the nation’s lakes and rivers will show beautiful homes with green lawns rolling down to the water’s edge — lawns that are well fertilized but runoff is not carefully controlled.
Then there are high levels of bacteria and mercury, which can come from factory and municipal runoff. Again, go to any river town and note how little is done to contain runoff from everything from businesses to parking lots. Storm sewers empty into streams that flow down to undeveloped areas. Where once waste -management people argued that “the solution to pollution is dilution,” in dammed and overburdened waterways that is no longer an option.
Meanwhile, uncontrolled development along streams has disturbed the land and decreased the shoreline vegetation that once helped contain runoff.
All these factors, in various combinations, are found nationwide and all are found in Alabama.
Most of the efforts to clean up Alabama lakes and streams have come from private initiatives, waterway homeowners who have organized, hired lawyers and forced major polluters to stop dumping. As a result, some bodies of water — Lake Martin comes to mind — are cleaner than they have been in decades. But most of our streams and rivers have no such advocates.
No small part of the problem is that America in general, Alabama in particular, is a nation of “aesthetic environmentalists” — especially where waterways are concerned. If it looks pretty, as most of our lakes and rivers do, it must be safe. However, the chemicals and compounds that make our waterways poor places for aquatic life cannot be seen by the naked eye — “out of sight, out of mind.”
So far, Alabama’s legislators have shown little interest in developing a comprehensive water-use plan that would include improving the conditions of our rivers and streams. The result of this neglect is what this survey reveals, not that we expect it to make much difference in Montgomery.