IS EVERYONE'S RESPONSIBILITY
"When the well's dry, we know the worth of water." -Benjamin Franklin, 1746. Water pollution -- an input which upsets the balance of life in an aquatic ecosystem or the quality of groundwater -- can be as natural as storm-water runoff in a wilderness area, or can result from accidental leaks of man-made materials with the potential for harm. Natural inputs, such as eroding soil, animal droppings, and the wide range of substances which can carried in run- off from rain have the potential to create negative water quality effects. So do inputs directly attributable to human activities (sewage, industrial wastes, and other obvious point and nonpoint sources) and indirectly caused by various uses of land (logging, mining, residential development, etc).
Regulations such as the Clean Water Act have been helpful in controlling many of the most obvious large-scale problems; today, diverse nonpoint sources are of increasing concern. In general, water quality in the United States is better than it was twenty years ago, but there is still far more to be done. Just as we have come to realize that high quality water is not something which can be taken for granted, it is time for us to recognize that we as individuals all play a role. Since each and every one of us can affect water quality, we all have an obligation to help keep it clean.
The time has come to align words with actions, to stop finger pointing, and to become accountable for what we do to the environment in our daily lives at work and at home. We all impact water quality in some way, but with a little effort we can each contribute towards getting the problems under control. We can study, join a local watershed group, and learn to look for the biological signs that indicate whether water quality is good (a healthy population of mayflies, for example) or poor (an abundance of black flies and worms). We can talk about such findings with friends and neighbors, sharing the valuable lessons that have been learned. Perhaps simplest of all, we can carry out the suggestions which follow. All are things which require a minimum of effort, which do make a difference, and which each and every one of us can easily do!
Nonpoint source pollution
Decisions people make about garden design and maintainenance can have a tremendous impact upon the amount of water, fertilizers (nutrients), and pesticides used -- and how much erosion occurs. All of these factors can have nonpoint source effects. In this photo, high school students measure run-off generated by different species of grass.
As we have seen in the last several Know Your Environment bulletins, nonpoint source pollution occurs when runoff picks up contaminants and carries them into surface water or groundwater. Since this runoff can come from many places, individual actions can prevent many nonpoint source effects. Here are some of the things you can do:
- Use porous materials for walkways as opposed to paving them; this increases infiltration and decreases runoff. If you have paved driveways or sidewalks near to planted areas, be careful to keep fertilizers and pesticides off the pavement so they don't get washed away into the storm drains which lead to rivers and streams.
- Divert rainwater from your downspouts away from paved surfaces to areas with good absorption and drainage. By encouraging infiltration into soil and lawns, you can help prevent unsightly erosion and minimize the amount of water flowing directly from storm drains into rivers and streams.
- Put mulch, stone, or gravel on bare areas or replant them with ground cover to keep erosion and runoff under control.
- Use plants which are native to your area when landscaping they generally require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides than non-native plants.
- Plant trees, shrubs, and groundcover on your property to benefit the environment. Properly planned landscapes can hel[p reduce runoff, minimize erosion, and save on heating and air conditioning bills. They can also attract wildlife, butterflies, and birds.
- Clean up after your pets. The wastes of domesticated animals are a significant source of nutrient and pathogenic contamination and can easily be washed into surface waters by rain.
- Keep leaves, litter, and grass clippings out of gutters and storm drains to prevent such debris from being washed into surface waters by storm water flows and rains.
- If you are on a septic tank system, prevent leakage by making sure it is regularly inspected and properly maintained. Don't divert your storm drains into the septic system and don't use additives. For a three bedroom house with a 1,000 gallon tank, having your tank pumped out by a qualified service technician is recommended every three to five years. (Smaller tanks should be pumped more often).
- Dispose of household chemicals at your community's hazardous waste collection center or during special hazardous waste collection days. Never pour them on the ground or down the drain; don't dispose of them in the regular trash. This includes items such as oil and antifreeze (which can be taken to service stations and other recycling centers); leftover paint; old pesticides and household cleaners; etc. If your community doesn't have a household hazardous waste collection day, consider organizing one of your own.
- Evaluate your transportation options; consider leaving your car at home. Besides tailpipe emissions, automobiles produce many potentially hazardous substances which leak or are deposited onto parking lots and roads just waiting to be washed off when it rains. Take a bus, train, or bicycle more often; when practical, travel by foot.
- Clean up spilled household solutions and automotive fluids rather than hosing them into the street (where they may eventually be washed into lakes, rivers, or streams).
- Get involved in local water monitoring efforts to gather water quality data; share what you learn to help your friends and neighbors become better informed. There are more than 500 active volunteer monitoring groups in operation across the US, and in many areas they are essential information providers for state and local government organizations. Besides monitoring, many groups organize beach clean-ups, stream walks, and restoration activities of various sorts. Put on your boots and join the growing number of people learning more about their local water systems and the issues involved with keeping them clean.
Limiting the use of water in day-to-day functions can reduce the demand on water supplies, lessen the burden on wastewater treatment facilities, and decrease the amount of runoff and nonpoint source pollution that occurs. In some countries, households have two separate supply lines: one for drinking water and another for water for non-potable use. In such areas, "recycled" water (treated municipal wastewater) is commonly used for things such as irrigating fields, watering golf courses, and refilling groundwater basins. In the United States, the majority of our water must meet stringent drinking water standards, no matter how it is used. Water may not be expensive here in the U.S., but it is in limited supply. In many parts of the world, water is too precious to waste.
Water monitoring groups across the country not only help state and federal agencies by collecting information, they help create awareness about the individual activities that can affect local rivers and streams.
Conserving water is one of the most significant things which individuals can do, and it can be done in many simple, practical ways:
- Turn off the tap while shaving, washing, and brushing your teeth. The same goes for when you are washing fruits and vegetables -- run only the water you will use. Avoid using the garbage disposal; make a compost pile instead (For more on composting, see the section on Trash).
- When washing dishes, don't leave the tap running. Instead, fill a pair of washbasins and use one for washing and one to rinse. If you use an automatic dishwasher, run it only when full.
- Keep a pitcher of water for drinking in the refrigerator. When running the tap, it typically takes about 2 gallons until the water gets cold.
- When it comes to doing laundry, try to wash only full loads -- the average washing machine uses about 50 gallons of water per cycle, with an additional 15 gallons when set to permanent press.
- Check faucets, toilets, and pipes for leaks and get faulty ones fixed. (Often by simply replacing a washer you can make the repair.) Use low-flow shower heads and low-flush toilets -- they require about half as much water and are just as effective as high or regular flows.
- Don't leave the hose running while you're washing your car, because a typical garden hose can deliver about 50 gallons of water in just 5 minutes. Use a bucket of water instead, and have a trigger type shut-off nozzle on the hose.
- Water your lawn in the early morning to avoid evaporation, and direct sprinklers so that water isn't wasted on sidewalks, pathways, or by spraying the house. Use drip-trickle irrigation systems or watering strips in your garden, watering close to the roots of the plants.
Water conservation may be necessary in the arid states, but do the rest of us really need to be concerned? The answer is yes for a variety of reasons, including the fact that decreasing per capita use on the clean water end is far less costly than treating ever- increasing quantities of wastewater (due to population growth); wastewater must be treated before it is discharged to rivers and streams.
The three R's -- reduce, recycle, reuse -- have become far more than just words. They are now in common usage in many parts of the country and the people in many communities are noticing the difference that these simple principles make. You can do your part:
- When shopping, bring carry bags with you and consolidate your purchases so you can cut down on the number of store bags which you take home. While you're at it, make use of your store's recycling programs: most provide receptacles for paper and plastic bags; some even give credit for the bags you return. Also, avoid unnecessary packaging whenever you can.
- Recycle at home. The depth of curbside recycling programs varies greatly between different counties, cities, and towns and is often dependent upon transportation costs, availability of markets, and access to landfill space. Some areas collect only newspapers and clear glass, while others take aluminum, tin, coated papers (such as that often found in junk mail and magazines), several varieties of plastic, and every conceivable color of glass.
- Take used hazardous waste-containing products to the appropriate collection centers or to the recycling areas at specialty stores. With the advent of the 1995 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Part 273 rule -- better known as the "Universal Waste" rule -- EPA established a new framework for the handling of certain hazardous wastes. As a result, there has been steady growth in the number of easy ways to recycle products that may pose hazards to the environment. Spent batteries, fluorescent lamps, and mercury-containing thermostats are examples of items that are now being collected by retail stores or through manufacturers' free mailers. Learn about such programs in your area and make use of them instead of throwing potentially harmful items out with the trash.
- Recycle at the office. Americans throw away so much office paper each year that if it were all collected and stacked 12 feet high, the resulting wall of paper would stretch from Los Angeles all the way to New York! It is estimated that the average office worker disposes of almost one pound of recyclable paper a day. Many offices have instituted recycling programs similar to those which employees are carrying out in their homes. Items such as bottles, cans, cardboard and phonebooks don't need to end up in the trash! Neither do many office supplies such as laser printer and copy machine cartridges -- manufacturers often encouragre recycling of their products. If you don't have an office recycling program in place, initiate one. It's easy to find out what is involved, and besides promoting recycling, you might save your company money on disposal costs.
- Buy recycled products. Besides environmental concerns and the increasing cost of landfilling, a major reason for the growth of recycling has been an increase in consumer demand for products which reuse materials from a previously disposable source. Fibers used in brand name garments, building materials such as plasterboard, and paper products are but a few of the many things available today which are made from recycled stock.
- Compost your biodegradable waste. It's easy to make compost at home -- it can be done in a modified garbage can or even in a plastic garbage bag. Dug into your garden, or spread on your lawn, flower bed, or around your trees, compost acts as a great natural fertilizer and makes for healthier plants. You can compost kitchen scraps (including egg shells and coffee grounds), animal manure, grass clippings, leaves, and plant trimmings by making a simple heap in your backyard. If you don't have much space, you can use a large metal or plastic container, such as a garbage can. Simply cut out the top and bottom, and drill or cut ventilation holes in the sides. You can even put the wastes in a black plastic garbage bag, seal it, and put it in a sunny place. To prevent odors and speed up the decomposition process, occasionally turn your compost pile to provide it with air. If the center of the pile or bin becomes dry, add some water as you turn it over. You may want to shred your waste, since small scraps decay more quickly.
Not only is population growing, each individual requires more energy and material possessions than ever before. At the same time, our supply of resources and ability to deal with waste is becoming more and more limited. Reducing consumption, conserving resources, and reducing the amount of pollution we generate are things each of us can do to stretch what resources we have to help meet future needs. Recycling, composting, and using alternate forms of transportation are simple ways to accomplish these goals.
Environmental protection has come a long way in the past twenty five years, and many regulations have produced significant results. Government and industry have made massive investments to improve the quality of our waterways and the safety of the water we drink. They should be no less vigilant in the future, but the responsibility for further improvement has shifted to the individual: the onus is now upon us. By examining our habits and making simple changes in behavior wherever appropriate, we can all play a part.
Written by: Barry Lewis
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