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Clean Water 101: Intro to River Contaminants

August 24th, 2017
By Heather Nix

First published on GVLToday

You might think it’s a simple question: “Are our Upstate rivers healthy?” But as many recent articles have shown, the answer is complicated — because water quality IS complicated. As the director of Upstate Forever’s Clean Water program, I want to help people understand the factors that impact the health of our rivers. Let’s start with the basics… what are some of the main river contaminants we look for to determine water quality, and what can you do to help prevent problems?

Nutrients

Nutrients sound like a good thing, right? And they are, except when we’re talking about streams and lakes with high nutrient levels — specifically nitrogen and phosphorus — which means that more algae can grow. This is bad for a few reasons. Algae can lead to fish kills, get stuck in boat propellers, make swimming unpleasant, interfere with industrial or agricultural use of water -- and it can make drinking water taste really bad (even though it’s perfectly safe to drink). 

What can you do?

  • Reduce your fertilizer use and apply it only when appropriate — not before rain, not close to a stream/river/pond/lake.  
  • Have your soil tested so you know how much fertilizer you actually need to apply. 
  • Plant native plants! They’re already adapted to local conditions, so they generally need little to no fertilizer (or irrigation) to thrive. Bonus: native plants also support local bird and wildlife populations.

Sediment

Sediment is composed of soil particles. It’s basically what makes rivers look muddy. Other pollutants can easily "bind" to sediment, so when sediment levels are high, other pollutant levels will often be elevated as well. Erosion along streambanks, driveways, construction sites, and ditches is a leading cause of increased sediment in rivers. 

What can you do? 

  • Improve vegetation along streams and roadside ditches to help hold the soil in place
  • Reduce stormwater runoff by capturing rain in rain barrels or cisterns, reducing impervious surfaces, and diverting runoff from gutters into vegetated areas to allow it to soak into the ground.  

Bacteria

This is the big one — the primary contaminant that tends to scare people about river quality. The main offender: poop of all kinds. Whether it’s from dogs, livestock, wildlife, or sanitary sewer overflows, it all can contribute to a river that may not be safe to swim in. But it can be hard to detect and control, since it comes from a wide variety of sources and isn’t readily visible. 

What can you do?

  • Dispose of ALL pet waste in a trash can.
  • If you have livestock, fence them out of streams. It’s healthier for them, it reduces erosion, and it prevents them from pooping straight into streams. 
  • Make sure your septic tank is properly maintained to prevent contamination of streams or lakes. 
  • Resist the urge to feed geese! They produce 1-2 pounds of waste per day, and it’s higher in bacteria than other animals. 
  • To further discourage geese, allow vegetation to grow higher near streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds. Better riparian buffers (which is what streamside areas are called) also help filter pollutants out of stormwater and prevent streambank erosion.  
  • Call sewer utilities immediately if you notice a sanitary sewer overflow or leaking pipe. 

Litter

Trash and debris are unsightly, pollute our water, reduce our enjoyment of rivers and lakes and harm the organisms that live there.  Whether it starts out along a road or in a yard, at some point rainwater will carry litter into a stream.  Some items, like styrofoam and plastic, last almost forever and will eventually make their way into the ocean. But even natural debris, including yard waste, can degrade water quality and cause flooding if it clogs a storm drain or culvert.  

What can you do?

  • Make sure all of your trash ends up in a trash can.  
  • Pick up litter wherever you see it.  
  • Don’t pile your yard waste near a storm drain or in the street gutter. Composting can be a great solution and increase the health of your soil.

The Upstate is full of amazing streams and rivers; with a little help from each of you, we can be sure to pass along clean water to future generations!  

Heather Nix is the Clean Water Director at Upstate Forever and can be reached at hnix@upstateforever.org.

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