Water Drops and Ripple Effects
Updated: Jan 4
Throughout my elementary school career, my dad worked as a riverkeeper. In an effort to educate the local youth about water pollution, he traveled from classroom to classroom armed with a raindrop costume. He would pick an eager volunteer from the gaggle of students and invite them to hop into character. The raindrop standing before the classroom, blue and devoid of gunk, was much like the water bubbling up from a spring in the mountains. We would begin our journey downstream until we reached the ocean with a disheartened raindrop that was now covered in bottles, chemicals, and cow dung. It was through my dad’s creative presentation that I first learned about point source, the pollution that we can easily identify and regulate, and nonpoint source pollution, the stuff that is distributed across farmlands and construction sites and is harder to regulate. I learned about springs and groundwater. I learned about river basins and tributaries and water wars.
Later on, I would find myself out of place in conversations with my peers; knowledge that seemed so embedded in my life was esoteric to others. Cool, clear water - that elixir that keeps us moving, cools our power plants, grows our food, and regulates our atmosphere - was, much to my chagrin, still a mystery to most. So, following in my father’s footsteps, here is my attempt at giving to readers what I was gifted long ago: an education on how water is polluted and regulated (minus the raindrop costume).
Let us begin in the mountains. They are misty giants and the spring water that leaks out of one of their valleys is so small it may as well be a tear on a cheek. As seen in Figure 1, springs occur where the water table intersects the surface of the ground in the form of an aquifer. The water table, the catch basin for water absorbed by soil in rain events, normally exists below the ground. The flow of the spring is determined by the water table level. During a drought, springs may flow less because there is less rainwater to recharge the water table; in particularly wet seasons, the opposite might occur.
But, for the sake of argument, let us say that this particular spring is gushing gloriously down the mountain. Along the way, it is joined by other spring-fed creeks. Slowly, it grows. Rapid flow and rocky terrain characterize these mountain streams. Their tumbling water is, in turn, supplied with a healthy quantity of dissolved oxygen (DO). Thus, the mountain streams become a breeding ground for all sorts of beautiful wildlife that need DO to ‘breathe’. Trout move between shoals, bright-spotted and bold. Snails cling to rocks, and small fish called shiners reflect the dappled sun streaming through trees overhead.
The critters stay, but the water keeps moving downstream. The spring - turned creek, turned river - passes a picnic area just off of a scenic byway nearby. A distracted family lets one of their soda bottles blow into the stream. This is the first time that the stream encounters non-point source pollution. People mindlessly litter all the time. Leave your soccer ball outside in a thunderstorm, and a nearby stream is likely to make its acquaintance. The river shrugs its shoulders and continues on its journey.
Somewhere in the foothills, a farmer adds a pipe to the river and pumps several tens of thousands gallons of water per day out of the river to quench the thirst of his or her crops. The water drop narrowly escapes capture. On its path down to the coast, the river will meet with many more agricultural water intakes. These intakes are typically permitted at the state level; for example, in Georgia, there is a three page application on the Environmental Protection Division’s website that must be submitted with maps of the proposed pump location. After reviewing the hydrology of the proposed location, the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) approves the construction of a water intake. The water intake is later issued a permit for a certain daily withdrawal.
A few miles downstream, the river meanders through a cow pasture. The cattle make their way down the banks of the river and take a drink or two. Quite often, they defecate and the river takes on some more pollution. In Georgia, there are no state laws that prohibit cattle access to rivers.
Sometime in the evening, storms roll into the farmland. Lightning strikes a lonely tree in a field. Rainwater looks for a place to settle. Dirt turns liquid and seeps into tributaries. It carries with it fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The fertilizers are high in nitrogen and phosphorus, which are fantastic at making things grow. In large enough quantities, they lead to algae blooms. This pollution is especially a problem in slow-moving water like lakes. Algae grows over the surface of the water and blocks sun from reaching benthic plants, which grow from the bottom of the water body. Without sunlight, these plants die and take with them the oxygen that they once supplied (Figure 2). Fauna in the lower and middle regions of the water body, without oxygen, cannot survive.
Around the bend, the water drop passes a discharge from a paper mill. There is one on the Altamaha River in Georgia. Black, sulfurous pulp flows from the outlet and mixes with the clear water. The smell clogs your throat, and, 40 miles downstream in the intercoastal waterway, you can still catch whiffs of it. Discharges like these are permitted by the state environmental agency (EPD in Georgia). Permits are issued based on the designated uses (DUs) of water bodies. Designated uses are legal terms that describe the desired uses of the waterway. DUs vary by state, but some common categories include drinking water, recreation, and fishing. The permits issued for discharges set maximum pollution concentrations based on the water quality necessary to maintain or achieve the designated use of a given waterway.
The same permitting process applies to the municipal wastewater plant discharge that the water drop passes just downstream. There are plenty of pollutants regulated under these point source permits: biological oxygen demand (BOD), nitrogen, phosphorus, etc. Pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) are emerging contaminants that are not yet regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. PPCPs, like estrogen from birth control and ibuprofen, enter the wastewater system and escape to the river without treatment. Once a part of the chemical system of the river, PPCPs interact with other chemicals in unpredictable ways. The result is consumption and uptake of a variety of endocrine-disrupting chemicals by aquatic life. Because the impacts of PPCPs on natural systems are not well-understood, continued research is needed to determine the level of danger to wildlife and humans.
The current slows and the water drop finds itself packed in with many others. Somewhere downstream, a dam stands tall. Turbines run at the bottom and convert the potential energy of falling water into electricity. The river turns into a lake. Dams are notorious for cutting off natural habitat corridors. Fish, like the robust redhorse, that might move upstream to breed but are blocked by towering dams have seen significant declines in population. Natural ecosystems below dams are altered significantly. Lower temperatures, rapid changes in water levels, and interruption of existing sediment transport systems threaten a variety of flora and fauna.
The water drop rambles into a city. There is another water intake on the left, this one for city drinking water. The Chattahoochee is the smallest river in the country to serve a metropolitan area as large as Atlanta. There is a lot of talk about water scarcity in the western United States, but it is also a problem in the southeast. For years, water wars between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida raged over the allocation of the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola Basin’s resources. Atlanta, the rapidly growing metropolis, sucks enough water out of the Chattahoochee that users downstream in Alabama worry that their municipal water supply, hydroelectric power, and agricultural resources will be threatened. Meanwhile down in Florida, fisheries that rely on the freshwater flowing from the Apalachicola River, which is formed by the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, to support a several million dollar shellfish industry are shutting down.
A major storm blows in and the water drop feels the frantic push of stormwater searching for the lowest point. Tributaries of the river, creeks running through residential areas and under roads, fill to the brim. In cities, impervious surfaces, which do not absorb water, make up a larger percentage of the ground cover than in rural areas. This poses a number of threats to the river. First, there is more runoff, and the runoff moves faster. Without grass and leaves, sticks and debris, or trees and bushes to slow it down, rainwater makes a mad dash through sidewalks and roads. It picks up trash and sediment and funnels into storm drainage systems that drain directly into streams. The result is a more volatile flow in streambeds. Creeks fill up faster and erode more aggressively.
What is more, the storm drainage systems find themselves overloaded with water. In Atlanta, and in many other cities, that means sewage overflows. Engineers designed the Atlanta sewage system a long time ago to service a population smaller than what exists now. For that reason, the engineers decided to combine the sewage and stormwater drainage. When it rains, water drains to pipes under the road, and, oftentimes, those pipes connect directly to the sewage pipes. Together, sewage and stormwater are transported to the wastewater treatment plant and released to rivers after cleaning. But, in extreme rain events, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change, the capacity of the pipes are exceeded, and overflow is rerouted to designated overflow locations (Figure 3).
Then, there is the problem of groundwater depletion. In undeveloped conditions, rainwater infiltrates the soil and flows down through a beautiful mosaic of natural filters to the water table. The water table, in turn, supplies water to rivers via springs and to us via wells. This is the cycle that keeps us watered and happy, and we’re interrupting it with our impervious surfaces. With less surface water for us to suck out of the rivers, the water wars worsen.
The water drop passes by a coal power plant, which dumps warm water, recycled steam used to spin turbines, and liquid used to cool plant mechanisms into the river. A group of turtles poke their heads out of the discharge, bobbing in water much different from that of their natural habitat. On the bank, coal ash, a by-product of the coal burning process that contains contaminants like cadmium, mercury, and arsenic, is transported to storage ponds or nearby landfills for disposal. Concerns over coal ash disposal are two-fold: first, the majority of coal ash disposal facilities do not use protective lining in their ponds. Without this protection, cancerous chemicals seep through the soil and contaminate the groundwater. Second, if pond walls fail, as they have in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia in the last 13 years, millions of cubic yards of coal ash escape directly to nearby rivers. The first national regulations of coal ash ponds were instituted in 2014 in response to a massive coal ash spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in 2008. Updates to the regulations have continued, but environmental activists are concerned that the rule changes will not adequately protect against coal ash contamination.
As the water drop continues on its journey to the coast, it will encounter a variety of pollutants similar to those described above. It will flow below paddlers, around ancient rocks, and over fallen trees. Springs will emerge at the river’s banks and give them new life. The closer the river is to the coast, the more wide and sandy it will become. Marshes will pop up in sloughs, where the river cut a new course and left its old one behind. The tides will start to play with its current. Near the coast, the fat serpent’s tail channel will split into many heads. Braided marshes and capricious water flow in and out in hours.
Maybe our water drop reaches the coast at sunset, tired and dirty. Historically, dilution was the solution to pollution: nasty rivers drained into gigantic oceans, and we, humans, did not have to worry about the consequences. Not anymore. Our impact is so impressive that the fish that we eat are riddled with microplastics and PPCPs. Those algae blooms, caused by fertilizer runoff from yards and farms, threaten to turn some parts of the tourism and fishing industry belly up.
While point source pollution is regulated by the environmental agencies and has been since the 1970s, it is harder to think up mechanisms for regulating nonpoint source pollution. Nonpoint source pollution accounts for 80% of surface water pollution, yet it is the least regulated. When construction is planned, engineers are required to submit erosion and sedimentation control plans to move ahead with the project. There are limits to the amount of fertilizer that farms can apply to their crops. And cities of a certain size are required to implement stormwater management programs. While these regulations represent great progress towards cleaner rivers, we need to do more.
When I was younger, the rain droplet suit was a fun exercise in education. Now, it makes me eager for change. Water deserves better. Solutions exist - we just need more advocates shouting for them to be implemented. Now, armed with the information provided in this article, it is my hope that readers will take steps to become more involved with water advocacy. Pay attention to water policy locally and nationally, get involved with riverkeepers near you, and keep those collective water drops clean.
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