Threats to clean water include:
Non-point source pollution
Non-point source pollution describes the sum of the many individual sources of pollution from households and businesses. Some of the biggest polluters are oil, pesticides, fertilizer, and pet waste. One pint of oil can cause an oil slick the size of a football field, and used motor oil is the biggest source of non-point source oil pollution. Yearly, the US spills the equivalent of 16 Exxon Valdez spills into our waters. Overuse of lawn fertilizers contributes as much as half of nitrogen pollution in water, and pesticides can drift or wash away to waters where they can affect aquatic organisms or people. Pet waste is a major reason for beach closings due to coliform bacteria- this is a good point to make with public education.
About 25 percent of the U.S. population relies on decentralized—or onsite—wastewater treatment systems. Around 20 percent of inspected systems are obviously failing to properly treat waste, but the number contaminating ground and surface waters is likely far higher. The major sewage pollutants are nitrates, phosphates, and harmful bacteria. Nitrates in drinking water source can cause methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome, and other health problems for pregnant women. Nitrates and phosphorus in surface water can spur algal growth and low dissolved oxygen, which in turn leads to die-offs. Harmful bacteria reaching ground water or surface waters can cause human disease through direct or indirect ingestion.
Pharmaceuticals- a growing problem
More people taking more prescription drugs leads to more biologically active chemicals being passed to the wastewater and into the ground. Traces of the most commonly used chemicals (anti-depressants, birth control) have begun showing up in streams and wells across the country- this can be expected to increase as wastewater from the last decade move through the aquifers. Public education should be used to inform people that prescription drugs should be thrown in the garbage, not dumped down the drains.
What the public can do
The public can make conscious decisions to reduce individual contribution, and become a messenger of environmental solutions. They can practice water conservation, maintain and inspect septic systems regularly, and dispose of household chemical and pet waste at a collection site or in the garbage as appropriate. Residents can reduce the number and amount of chemicals you use in and around the house. Buried oil tanks- abandoned or not- should be removed. If they begin to leak, remediation can grow into the many thousands of dollars, so it is best to remove them as soon as possible. The public can act as environmental messengers to share knowledge of the problems and solutions, and thereby reduce the cost to government of fixing our mistakes.
What the Sierra Club can do
In 2012, the Atlantic Chapter launched the Chapter-wide Water Sentinels - a program to get citizens taking an active role in clean water by testing water quality and expanding a database of these measurements. With the help of volunteers, we can be a more active participant in public decisions affecting our water. Learn more on how you can become a Water Sentinel by emailing Jessica Helm or Geri Aird.