Where have all the Fish Gone?

By Kari Bedi and Tom Barrett

Did you know 40% of our fresh waterways are impaired (i.e. polluted)?

Fish Antique Pen and InkThis means the water is too dirty  for swimming, fishing or drinking. Plants, animals, and fish are disappearing from many rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. A waterway is impaired If it does not meet water quality standards of the Clean Water Act and the state. This means the waterway is polluted. The information is confusing but the problem is real. The problem is local as well as national. The problem will not go away without action.

Unintended Consequences of Our Unconscious Use of Resources

Fish species, along with other marine life and those that depend on it, worldwide are imperiled by:
  • Ocean acidification – due to carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels
  • Overfishing
  • Warming water temperatures
  • Deoxygenation – due to run-off of fertilizers and sewage
  • Pollution – soil, nitrates, pesticides, toxic chemicals
  • Siltation/Erosion – which can add to toxic algae growth in rivers and lakes
Alex Rogers, professor of biology at Oxford University, said in regard to the health of our oceans: “We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”

In nature there is no good; there is no evil; there are only consequences.”

Ohio

Toxic Algae Bloom

Toxic algae bloom from stormwater runoff

Toxic algae blooms are flourishing under warming water temperatures and contaminated stormwater runoff. Growing evidence suggests toxins, which are colorless, odorless, and water soluble, may remain present in water bodies long after algae blooms have vanished; and more alarmingly, algae toxins potentially could become airborne. In September, an Ohio county faced a cyanobacteria contamination of their water system that forced the water supplier to warn customers not to drink water from the tap.

Florida

Heavy summer rains in south Florida set off a chain reaction that devastated three estuaries. The Army Corps of Engineers made the difficult decision to release billions of gallons of polluted water into surrounding estuaries instead of risking a breach of a fragile 80-year old dike after the rains overwhelmed Lake Okeechobee. The surrounding estuaries were devastated by the on-slot of freshwater from the lake skewing salinity, along with the polluted runoff from surrounding farms, ranches, septic tanks and golf courses. The disruption caused a burst of toxic algae to grow causing a perfect storm of environmental dangers.

The Tide is Turning Toward Resiliency with Green Infrastructure

With changes in our climate – wetter wet seasons and drier dry seasons – communities across the nation are undertaking green infrastructure plans and initiatives to protect local waterways from contamination. The EPA offers Green Infrastructure Case Studies for further understanding of how cities and towns have planned, designed, and implemented green infrastructure within their communities.

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago has embraced a Green Alley Program to convert more than 1,900 miles of asphalt/concrete alleys to 3,500 acres of permeable paving, with the goal of reducing stormwater by 80 percent.
Agricultural Runoff

Non-point source pollution from agricultural runoff.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia developed the Green City, Clean Waters program, a 25-year infrastructure management program, to protect and enhance regional waterways by investing in green stormwater infrastructure, a call to revamp current impervious watershed hardscapes while meeting ecological restoration goals.

Groveland, Massachusetts

Even small communities with limited resources are taking action with stormwater management programs by creating stormwater committees, offering public education and outreach, and engaging community members in assistance with stormwater management and EPA compliance.

What We Know for Iowa

Per a 1995 survey conducted by Iowa State University, 90% of Iowans cite water quality as their number one environmental concern. Water pollution issues and solutions are complex because water quality is impacted by so many factors – land use, land formations, farming practices, and weather conditions, etc.
Per Iowa Association of Naturalists’ Iowa Water Pollution findings, 80% of all Iowans depend on groundwater for their drinking water. These underground aquifers are replenished by water seeping down through the soil from surface water supplies. Pollutants, from cities, industry, farm animals, and field runoff, are filtered out at varying degrees as surface water seeps through layers of soil, sand, and gravel.
Sewage overflow outlet

Sewage overflow outlet

For Iowa, soil erosion is the number one source of surface water pollution. The movement of soil into water supplies is called siltation. Erosion easily occurs when bare land is left to be exposed to wind or heavy rains. Primary sources of unprotected soil include agriculture, road ditches, and construction/building sites. Of course, along with the soil comes the pollutants in the soil that load stormwater runoff with nutrient-rich feces and various toxic chemicals.

Collaborating on Conscious Solutions for Water Improvement

The best solution of course is prevention. However, in the face of the grand challenge of changing our age-old practices to ease irreversible degradation and rejuvenate our ecosystems, there are actionable steps we can take now to improve upon the negative affects of contaminated runoff and soil erosion to our waterways.

Elements of Green Infrastructure

  • Native grasses and filter strips – dense root systems of native plantings help hold soil in place, filters out pollutants, improves absorption rate, and slows runoff
  • Bioswales – a drainage course with gently sloped sides designed to slow stormwater flow to trap silt and pollutants
  • Urban tree canopy – intercepts rainfall, reducing surface runoff
  • Greenstructure – urban green spaces designed for cleaner air and water, recreational and educational opportunities, and natural habitat networks
  • Permeable pavement – pervious materials that help control stormwater at the source, reduce runoff and provide filtration
  • Constructed and natural wetlands – act as a biofilter, removing sediments and pollutants
  • Green roofs – a form of low impact development, offers many benefits including stormwater management, improved air quality, and energy efficiency
  • Green alleys – incorporate permeable pavements, open bottom catch basins, high-albedo pavement to reflect sunlight and help reduce the urban heat island effect, and dark sky-compliant light fixtures to reduce light pollution
Green infrastructure

A bioswale creates a more natural approach to stormwater mitigation.

By weaving these natural processes into the built environment, green infrastructure offers both economical and ecological benefits to stormwater management. Not to mention further benefits including: flood mitigation, improved air quality, and support for local and regional biodiversity – supporting the return of fish populations.

Anthropogenic influences – like that from population growth, the energy industry, manufactured products, mining, transportation, and agricultural practices – have had a severe impact on biodiversity and water quality worldwide.”

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