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Surface Water Quality: Have the Laws Been Successful?

Surface Water Quality: Have the Laws Been Successful?

by Ruth Patrick, Faith Douglass, Drew M. Palavage, Paul M. Stewart

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Addressing ecologists, legislators, lawyers, and industrialists alike, Ruth Patrick asks what has been accomplished with the millions of dollars spent on upgrading our surface waters. Has the water improved in spite of the fact that the crayfish, snails, and algae are not those that one would expect to find in natural rivers and estuaries? To evaluate the success of


Addressing ecologists, legislators, lawyers, and industrialists alike, Ruth Patrick asks what has been accomplished with the millions of dollars spent on upgrading our surface waters. Has the water improved in spite of the fact that the crayfish, snails, and algae are not those that one would expect to find in natural rivers and estuaries? To evaluate the success of environmental laws over the past two decades, the author examines the aquatic life of river systems in the Delaware Valley, Texas, and Georgia--the only areas in the United States where she found enough biological data to determine trends over time. Although tracing the impact of environmental laws is difficult, Patrick found that for these three water systems the results were generally positive. However, if society as a whole wants effective environmental legislation, organizations must take on a more systematic and orderly approach to data gathering. Patrick argues that in monitoring the waters, one must study protozoa, algae, and worms as well as fish, oysters, and shrimp; one must track amounts of metal as well as low concentrations of oxygen. In proposing options for the future, the author predicts that the cost of such monitoring will be higher than present expenditures, but the cost of lax control will be even greater.

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

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Surface Water Quality

Have the Laws Been Successful?

By Ruth Patrick, Faith Douglass, Drew M. Palavage, Paul M. Stewart


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-08769-6


What is Happening To Our Surface Waters?

Many laws, both Federal and State, have been enacted to improve the quality of our nation's surface waters. Since 1972, when the Clean Water Act was passed, a great deal of public and private money has been spent to achieve these ends. With what result? Has the quality of our waters improved, and if it has, does the improvement correlate with the enforcement of the laws, or is it haphazard?

Most laws have been directed toward controlling municipal and industrial wastes, and control of agricultural pollution has been voluntary except where direct discharge of effluents was involved. Cross-compliance provisions and agricultural education programs have stimulated efforts at conservation farming, and some state laws have been directed toward control of upland erosion or prevention of toxic substances from entering surface waters. However, we have found no state regulations aimed directly at preventing pesticides or nutrients from fertilizers from entering the streams.

With what result? To what degree have the chemistry and biology of our surface waters been affected by agriculture?

To evaluate the changes that may have occurred in our streams, many factors must be considered. Climatic changes have been important, and in addition to new laws and regulations, many social changes have taken place that influence the type and quantity of effluents. Significant shifts in populations have occurred. The nation's population has increased steadily and is concentrating along the coasts. Also, there has been a movement from New England and the Midwest toward the Southeastern States and populations in Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah and in California have grown rapidly. In many of these areas, water supplies are limited. With the movement of populations has come new industry and services, and agriculture has expanded even in areas where water is limited. Local movements within a watershed also have important effects on water quality. For example, in the first part of this century most of the population of the Delaware River Basin was concentrated on the shores of the Upper Estuary. Today, people are rapidly moving to the Lower Estuary.

Another effect of population on pollution is the growth of two-wage earner families. This means that less time is available for household chores, and chemical solutions are widely used in cleaning floors, ovens and clothes. These solutions were not available in the first part of this century. Also, we are demanding more packaged foods so that meals can be prepared quickly. This means more plastics and foils to present these foods in a safe, healthy form. Increased manufacturing often means increased wastes.

Our diets have also changed. Where people can afford them, fresh vegetables are demanded all year. This means a great deal more irrigation, and in the last 10 years irrigation has more than doubled in the eastern seaboard states. Irrigation has become a severe problem in areas where the available water is almost entirely groundwater. For example, the water table in the Ogallala aquifer in parts of Texas and Nebraska has dropped 40 feet in the last 10 years because withdrawals greatly exceed recharge. Many more pesticides are being used in agriculture than 30 to 40 years ago because people demand perfect fruits and vegetables. They do not like wormholes, or a bit of black spot on their vegetables.

In an effort to meet consumer demands, some farmers grow three or more crops per year on the same parcel of ground. This can be accomplished only by irrigation, and by the increased use of fertilizers and pesticides, together with new breeds of seeds that mature more rapidly. Our foods are more manufactured than they were at the turn of the century. We want them in a form that can be prepared within a few minutes; we have "minute rice" for dinner and "30-second oatmeal" for breakfast.

The recreation habits of the population also have changed. Golf is more popular than it was 30 years ago, and the number of golf courses is increasing rapidly. Maintenance of these courses means fertilization, irrigation, and the use of pesticides, most of which eventually reach streams or groundwater.

Many people are less interested in active sports, and have turned to television or computers for amusement. Businesses want more rapid communication; thus computers are found in most business offices and in many homes. These devices require silicon discs, made through a process which produces deleterious wastes. The groundwater in California's Silicon Valley is so contaminated with toxic materials that it probably cannot ever be used without a great deal of treatment.

The location of the sources of pollution are also different, and have spread into some fragile environments. Our increased population has caused us to destroy many natural environments that have great inherent capacity to assimilate wastes. I refer particularly to the wetlands.

Thus our changing way of life and increasing population have greatly increased our waste production. Indeed, if some large industries had not been constantly trying to reduce wastes, the problems would be even greater.

Construction of sewage and waste treatment plants for municipal and industrial discharges has been greatly increased in recent years. Have these treatments brought about improvement in our streams and rivers? Or, has the constantly increasing volume of waste been too great to control? Have changes in waste disposal practices caused the contamination of groundwater, whereas in former times only surface waters were contaminated? We try to answer some of these questions in this book.

In order to correlate changes in the chemistry and biology of our rivers with the enforcement of pollution control laws, several factors must be weighed. First, we must examine the changes in quantity and type of pollution load that has entered each river. Then, we must determine whether the pollution in the water column has been removed completely, or simply has settled into the sediments. Are the wastes biodegradable? If so, a larger amount of waste might be safely discharged. However, a nonbiodegradable waste that accumulated in the river's living organisms or in its sediments could cause severe damage to aquatic life, even though the amount discharged was very small.

To answer these questions, we have studied parts of three watersheds, located in various parts of the country, that have been subjected to different types of wastes, and reflect the influence of different laws and regulations. The economically important Delaware River Estuary was selected because an impressive amount of information about its water quality is available. (Information about most of our riverine systems is strikingly limited, and its absence poses a great problem in a study of this sort.) The Delaware River receives a wide mixture of industrial, municipal, and agricultural discharges. Agriculture is the major activity in the upper watershed. Urbanization and erosion from construction sites pose severe problems.

The second river analyzed, the Neches Estuary, is primarily affected by effluents from the petroleum industry. Some municipal and agricultural wastes are present, but any improvement in water quality would be due largely to the efforts of the petroleum industry.

A reach in the Flint River in Georgia was selected for study because, according to state authorities, the effects of agriculture are dominant.

Our choices also were influenced by the availability of long-term data on changes in chemical constituents that are related to water quality, such as hardness, biological oxygen demand, acidity, ammonia and conductivity. Data for trace metals, however, are more difficult to find, and few measurements of trace organic substances are available. Information about fish populations was fairly complete for some waters, but invertebrate data were less detailed. Data for algae were scarce and often of poor quality.

Using all of the information we could get, we have made some estimates of change. To do this it was important to know the functioning of all groups of organisms in the stream, in order to understand the cycling of nutrients and the ability of the stream to cleanse itself. We have attempted to examine all types of aquatic life, including bacteria.

After identifying changes in water quality, we attempted to relate these to various human activities. This should provide some insight into the effectiveness of the laws and regulations. The book concludes with the presentation of some options regarding the future of these waters.


Impacts of Human Society on the Riverine System—Past and Present

Before the arrival of European settlers, the three watersheds that are examined in this book were occupied by Native Americans. These people did not build permanent habitations and the pollution that they generated was relatively small in volume. With the arrival of Europeans and the establishment of stable habitations, the pollution impact became greater.

The Delaware

The Delaware was discovered by Henry Hudson in 1609 and he described it as "one of the finest, best and pleasantest rivers in the world" (Wildes 1940) (Fig. 2.1). On his first sight of it, the river was pristine. Indian tribes lived along the shores, fishing the river, hunting in the nearby woods and growing corn, squash, beans, sweet potatoes, and tobacco (Wildes 1940). These uses had no noticeable impact on the river.

The first European settlers were attracted by the natural resources of the area: the forests that provided wood for building and heating; the fertile soil; the abundant water supply; the plentiful wildlife, fish and oysters, and native vegetation. Numerous communities were established along the Delaware Bay and River and the settlers traded furs, lumber, and grain for necessities from Europe (US Public Health Service 1952a).

Quaker settlers, who came to the Delaware Valley in 1678, established tanneries, brickyards, and glassworks (CEQ 1975). As the immigration continued, additional industries were instituted. Forges and furnaces were built to smelt and shape the iron ore that was found in the area. Grain mills were built to grind corn, wheat, and rye grown in the hinterland.

Lumbering became a major industry in the Delaware Basin, and communities on the Bay supplied wood to shipyards and papermills near Wilmington (CEQ 1975). Pines and hemlocks, cut in the Catskill Mountains of New York, were floated downstream to Philadelphia and Wilmington for use in shipbuilding, which was also a thriving industry in the Estuary. Oaks and maples were cut in the Kittatinny Mountains of New Jersey, and Pennsylvania's Poconos. Some logs were floated only as far as Easton, where they were cut for use in buildings and shipped to New York or inland. Others were transported downstream to paper mills below Philadelphia (Wildes 1940).

Commercial fishing also thrived. The waters were rich with shad, sturgeon, striped bass, herring, white perch and other species, which were cut and exported. Oystering was so extensive that it became the economic mainstay of many communities on the Bay (CEQ 1975).

As a result of this activity, the Delaware Valley became a center of trade with England during colonial times. However, this was not without a price. By the time of the first Continental Congress in 1774, there was noticeable water pollution in the Delaware. At first, most of the pollution was confined to the area of docks and properties bordering the River (US Public Health Service 1952a). The first water quality survey on the Delaware, in 1799, reported that wastes were entering the River from numerous sources in the Philadelphia area (Albert 1982a).

At first, the wastes dumped in the Delaware were of a volume that could be readily assimilated. The uses of the River coexisted with each other. The water was drinkable; fisheries prospered; industry and river traffic did not interfere with recreational uses (CEQ 1975).

Nineteenth Century

The 1800s brought changes. Cities and industries grew rapidly after the development of municipal water systems which provided large quantities of fresh water. Construction of canals and railroads linked the River with the hinterlands, and the greater availability of coal and iron fueled the expansion of numerous industries. Small shops and cottage industries disappeared and craftsmen went to work for large manufacturers. Immigrants came to the communities along the Delaware in large numbers to take jobs in factories.

After yellow fever epidemics in 1793 and 1797, Philadelphia was forced to develop a public water supply to eliminate the use of contaminated well water. By 1801 a system had been constructed to transmit fresh water from the Schuylkill to the city (Columbia University School of Law 1982). Other communities also built municipal water systems, drawing water from the Delaware and its major tributaries. By 1860, most residents of Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton, Easton, and other cities were drinking river water (DRBC 1988b).

Many industries were built or relocated on the waterfronts to be near the water needed for manufacturing, and the ships that delivered supplies and took finished products to market. Construction of canals permitted the transportation of coal, which had replaced water as an inexpensive energy source, to markets along the Delaware River at a cost well below that of overland transportation. Iron furnaces and mills grew with the use of coal. Glassblowing and silkweaving factories expanded; kilns for pottery and porcelain were constructed.

In the early 1800s, ?. I. du Pont, a French chemist, established the first gunpowder mills in the United States on the Brandywine Creek just above Wilmington (CEQ 1975). The availability of large amounts of water helped make possible the successful growth of these mills, which became the basis of a worldwide industrial enterprise.

The availability of iron spurred the growth of numerous other manufacturing interests in the Delaware Estuary. Iron replaced wood as the primary shipbuilding material, brought more wealth to the cities, and accelerated the demise of small Bay towns where wooden shipbuilding had been important. Iron also became the chief raw material for locomotives built at the riverside by the Baldwin Locomotive works in Eddystone, Pennsylvania. Nailmaking, originally mechanized in Philadelphia, became an important local industry (CEQ 1975).

As the cities grew the demand for food increased, and farming became more profitable. Railroads and canals made the use of wheat grown farther west cheaper than that grown locally. New Jersey and Pennsylvania farms prospered in dairy, poultry and meat production. Delaware's peach orchards, and later apples, thrived as the demand increased (Wildes 1940).

The Civil War brought even greater wealth to the Basin. Manufacturing continued to grow, especially the wool trade and the heavy industries that prospered from Army orders. Munitions plants expanded to meet the demand for weapons (Wildes 1940).

During the 1800s, the fishing industry in the Delaware served an international market. Shad, sturgeon, whitefish, bass, and oysters were shipped as far as China (FWPCA 1966). Delaware River sturgeon also supplied an extensive caviar market (FWPCA 1966).

Although the fishing industry remained substantial throughout the nineteenth century, declines in the populations of many species were reported. A decrease in the abundance of shad was noticed in the 1840s, and by the 1870s was significant enough to appreciably reduce hauls (Howell and Slack 1871 in Kiry 1974). Striped bass reportedly began to decline in 1855, although they were still fairly abundant near Trenton around 1875 (Abbott 1878 in Kiry 1974). Haul catches of sturgeon began to decline on the Delaware in the 1890s (Cobb 1900 in Kiry 1974). The Delaware, however, remained the leading sturgeon stream in the nation for a number of years afterwards (Smith 1915 in Kiry 1974). Catfish vanished almost completely and the population of oysters in the Bay also began to decline (Wildes 1940).

Overfishing and the construction of dams, which prevented upstream migration, were probably responsible for much of the decrease in fish populations (Kiry 1974). However, it is likely that water pollution also contributed to the decline. The rapid growth of cities and industries along the Delaware resulted in greater amounts of waste to be disposed. Wastes from Philadelphia and other communities were disposed in the Delaware and other streams both by design, through street gutters or sewers, and by accident, through poorly constructed privy vaults (Columbia University School of Law 1982).


Excerpted from Surface Water Quality by Ruth Patrick, Faith Douglass, Drew M. Palavage, Paul M. Stewart. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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