Rivers of Life
From its oceans, estuaries, rivers, lakes, and ponds, to its wetlands, vernal pools, seeps, and aquifers, water is a distinguishing characteristic of our Northeastern region. It is also one of its most precious resources. All biological organisms require water and, to function well, clean water. Water serves critical roles in agriculture, industry, recreation, transportation, and maintenance of our environment, as well as our very quality of life. Within the Northeast, it is ironic that, perhaps because of water's ubiquitous nature, we seem to take it for granted.
Pressures and Threats
Since pre-settlement times, human populations in the region burgeoned from an estimated 1-2 million (combined natives, settlers and slaves circa 1760), to currently over 42 million people (U.S. Census Bureau 2004 estimate). Modern concepts of public water supply systems, to serve increasingly urban populations, are a relatively recent development of the mid-nineteenth century. New York City established its first off-site source system, the Croton, as 33 miles of brick-lined aqueducts barely more than 150 years ago in 1842. Pressures on the abundant, though finite, collective resource have continued to grow as the heavily industrialized Northeast found itself the source of a wide range of environmental pollutants. Agricultural and road run-off, manufacturing waste, urban sewage, as well as non-point-related herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, and other chemical and microbial compounds pose not only formidable threats to our biological systems, but continue to combine to produce new and unpredictable effects.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which monitors America's water supply system, maintains an excellent geospatial data service at www.epa.gov/geospatial/. A recent query of this service, for the Northeast region, indicated that the Northeast alone contains:
- Over 350 superfund sites
- Over 500 impaired water systems
- Over 6,500 water dischargers and
- Over 100,000 registered sites that handle hazardous waste.
Given the geographic distribution of just these known sites, unless you live deep in the Adirondacks or northern Maine, water quality is an issue that will concern you.
Turning the Tide?
But the story is not entirely a desperate one. Within the past several decades, major efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested by a wide array of federal, state, local, and private agencies collaborating within the Northeast. Many aspects of water quality are improving within the four major river systems of the Northeast: the Delaware, the Hudson, the Connecticut and the Penobscot, as well as many of the smaller drainages.
Into the Coming Millennium
- Benthic macro-invertebrate (small water bug) populations, commonly used as indicators of water quality (bioindicators), have continued to rebound in Maine's Penobscot River.
- Since 1961, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) has helped make the Delaware "one of the world's top water quality success stories."
- Thanks in large part to the continued efforts of New York State's DEC, discussions are under way to actually select accessible swimming locations within the Hudson River.
- Steady improvements in the Connecticut River have helped lead to its being designated an American Heritage River (1998). The U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Service has designated all of the Connecticut River watershed as a refuge.
With all of the collective successes, much more needs to be done. The full extent of water quality impacts is still being ascertained, measured, and mapped. And, as with climate dynamics, even if all water pollution and source impacts were to be stopped tomorrow, the legacy of below-ground toxic plumes, long term accumulation of heavy metals in systems, and genetic mutations within faunal populations will remain as issues of grave concern for generations to come.