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August 24th, 2017
By Heather Nix
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.