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Clean water emerging issues

In part because of our special concern for the Great Lakes, we have a rich community of water-related programs and organizations in Northeast Ohio (see summary). They are working to meet many environmental cleanup and restoration priorities.

But there are still gaps in our care for water—and emerging issues that lack an organized response. Below is a summary of water challenges that will need greater emphasis in the future.

Agricultural runoff<br />The next step for tighter water quality regulation may be farm fields, which occupy most of the land in the Lake Erie Basin.Rushing to drill<br />Drilling operations to frack for shale gas are coming into Ohio and are creating new water quality concerns.Warmer winters, less ice<br />Great Lakes ice coverage is decreasing due to climate change, which could cause increased lake-effect snow in Northeast Ohio and more shoreline damage from winter storms. Warmer water in the summer could cause more algal blooms. Too private a lake<br />Could we imagine a free, open, and continuous public shoreline for Lake Erie?

Water and climate change

This is the big one. The latest draft U.S. National Climate Assessment predicts that increasing climate change will amplify existing risks to people, ecosystems, and infrastructure in the Midwest. It says:

“Extreme rainfall events and flooding have increased during the last century, and these trends are expected to continue, causing erosion, declining water quality, and negative impacts on transportation, agriculture, human health, and infrastructure...Climate change will exacerbate a range of risks to the Great Lakes region, including changes in the range and distribution of important commercial and recreational fish species, increased invasive species, declining beach health, and harmful blooms of algae.”

As a result, all of our water quality programs—and assumptions—will need to be reevaluated in light of changing climatic conditions.

Fracking

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing, the technique that has made it economically feasible to drill for natural gas in deep shale formations, is raising many environmental concerns in Ohio, with impacts on water quality among the most serious. It requires five to six million gallons of water to frack a well, and the water is laced with brine and hazardous chemicals in the process. So there are concerns about large water withdrawals, the potential for groundwater contamination, and the disposal of the fracking fluid.

In the rush to drill and reap an economic windfall, surprisingly little independent research has been been done on the impacts. A big study by U.S. EPA will not be completed until 2014. This will definitely be a key water issue to watch in the coming years.

New toxics

Water quality scientists studying the Great Lakes have long warned about persistent toxic chemicals that build up in the food chain and have wide-ranging health impacts on both wildlife and humans, even at extremely low doses. These chemicals have included pesticides, coal tar residues from steelmaking, PCBs from electrical equipment, dioxins from incinerators, plasticizers, and flame retardants.

While some progress has been made toward the Great Lakes goal of “virtual elimination of persistent toxic substances,” new types of harmful pollutants are being introduced to our water supplies all the time—such as antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, antimicrobials, and chemicals in personal care products.

Constant vigilance will be required to find the health hazards of the future. And more caution must be practiced before new chemicals are released into the environment.

Agriculture

About 70% of the land in the Lake Erie Basin is devoted to agriculture, and runoff from farm fields is a major water pollution problem. Yet farms are largely exempted from the requirements of the Clean Water Act. Programs to reduce agricultural water pollution are most voluntary.

However, with the reappearance of the Lake Erie’s algal blooms and dead zone, agriculture is coming under greater scrutiny. It should be next focus of stormwater pollution control.

Headwater streams

Citizen groups and regulatory agencies pay a lot of attention to the major rivers in Northeast Ohio—monitoring stream health and setting pollution limits. But what about the countless, small streams that are tributary to the main rivers? These small creeks and brooks are the ecological capillaries of the landscape, but they are easily degraded by encroaching development.

Recognizing the need to strengthen protection of small streams, the Ohio EPA is proposing new rules for primary headwater habitat streams. It’s important to support this effort.

Big restoration

Our thinking about water resources should evolve beyond stopping pollution. It should embrace a bold vision of restoring lakes and rivers and wetlands to ecological health. We should have big goals—goals that might sound utopian today but will become more realistic as the world increasingly realizes the preciousness of water.

Can we imagine the restoration of the estuaries of Lake Erie rivers or the Great Black Swamp? Can we incrementally retrofit cities with green infrastructure to restore natural flows of water?

Big public access

One of the tragedies of Ohio is the paucity of public access to our greatest natural resource, Lake Erie. This lack of access contributes to people’s psychological and emotional disconnection from the lake. It makes it hard to cultivate a culture of caring for water.

So we need to start planning for free, open, and continuous access to the Ohio Lake Erie shore. The state should work with lakeshore communities to buy lakefront properties as they come on the market, with a goal of assembling a public lakefront in the next 100 years. It would be one of the best investments we could make, since it would increase the value of many more properties near the lakefront.

 

Are there other emerging issues that will affect the sustainability of our water resources? Contribute your ideas here.

Updated 2/3/13

For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.
— Sandra Postel

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