SALT LAKE CITY — Despite more than 40 years since the passage of the federal Clean Water Act, a new survey shows more than half the nation's rivers and streams are in poor biological health, indicating it is easier to keep them clean than to correct the bad behavior of the past.
The Environmental Protection Agency's report shows that approach is no more apparent anywhere than in the West, which is the country's best performing region in stream and river health, according to the agency's National Rivers and Stream Assessment.
Nationally, only 21 percent of the close to 2,000 waterways randomly surveyed were classified as "good" for biological health, compared with the West's 42 percent. The East had just 17 percent of its rivers and streams labeled in good health.
"The Western mountain region is in the best shape of all the regions in the country," said Jeff Ostermiller, who heads up the water quality management section for the Utah Division of Water Quality, adding the results indicate a longer period of interaction between man and water.
"I think it is an example of, yes, we are doing comparatively better than out East or in the South," Ostermiller said, "but things are not perfect, and we can't take that for granted."
Utah water quality scientists were among those taking samples in more than 85 field trips that probed rivers as large as the Mississippi and tiny mountain streams during the summers of 2008 and 2009.
Ostermiller said the division wanted to broaden the data collected in Utah, so sampling jumped from the initial 25 sites proposed by the EPA to nearly 50. Utah-specific data are being analyzed by the division, with final results due later this year. Waterways sampled include the Green, Weber, San Juan and Escalante rivers, as well as multiple creeks.
About 15 employees did water sampling at randomly selected locations from the southern end of the state to the north, getting there by practically all manners of transportation.
"Some of the places were so remote it required mules to get into and helicopter trips," Ostermiller said. "It blows people's minds back in the East when you tell them it takes a daylong boat ride and a six-hour drive to get a sample to Federal Express. But when you pick random points on a map, you can end up in some unusual places."
The EPA surveyed rivers and streams looking at three key factors: the presence or lack of algae, fish populations and the level of tiny aquatic creatures, or macro-invertebrates.
Ostermiller said the final category is the sentinel indicator of how a stream is doing. Aquatic bugs, for example, were wiped out in Red Butte Creek in a oil spill more than two years ago and have yet to fully recover.
"If they are telling us our streams are sick, ultimately that has recreational impacts, and once that habitat degradation takes hold, it has economic impacts as well," he said.
While the survey's results don't directly speak to drinking water concerns, Ostermiller said the issue of nutrient buildup such as elevated levels of phosphorus and nitrogen should be a concern to anyone worried about the future of water quality in their state.
"The most comprehensive way to measure the health of an overall water system is to look at the health of what lives there all the time," he said.
Ostermiller added that Utah is attempting to get ahead of the problem through the organization of a statewide nutrient pollutant team to address the issue.
Such an approach is critical because the EPA has indicated if the states don't come up with standards that can be enforced, the federal agency will do it for them.
"They want to see a comprehensive nutrient reduction program," Ostermiller said. To that end, the division is gearing up for another prong of the study, which will begin this summer and include follow-up sampling of streams.
"The fact that many of these rivers and streams have not recovered in the 40 years since the Clean Water Act tells us that we have a long way go," he said.
"The overall main benefit of this analysis is that it is absolutely impossible to solve problems you don't know about," Ostermiller continued, "and to solve them, you have to have an understanding of the problem itself before you seek effective solutions."
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